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Communication and space, or the materiality of association

Abstract. Diverse approaches over the last few decades have emphasized space as an active part of social processes. However I wish to explore this relation in a different way to most of these analyses in particular by foregrounding the role of space in association, or relations between actors performed through communication. My proposition is that if communication processes are really central to social life and the reproduction of societies, and if there is indeed a profound relation between social processes and spatial forms, then we can identify a potential role for space in the communication that constitute the connections between our everyday acts. Here I look to show that although space is becoming a central theme, a systematic theory of how our practices are related through webs of communication and their spaces still appears to be missing. My aim is to explore the inherent relation of practice to space as an effect of meaning to be sure, a Husserlian property of meaning as reference, a way to trace connections between our acts able to clarify the role of space as both referential context for communication and a referential system capable of supporting and fostering associations.


Observe the people around us. Listen for a minute. We are immersed in communication.

This phrase comes from an imaginary dialogue I occasionally had with a theorist whose thinking was shaped in a post-structuralist era, a fictitious period resulting from the theoretical endeavours of a generation to overcome the limitations of key concepts of metaphysics notions such as structure and meaning, reason and consciousness in favour of other dimensions of our experience like emotion and desire. A theorist whose epistemology, though enriched, no longer allowed him to see the importance of language and its contexts, or the intrinsic meaningfulness of interactions. Especially when my imagined colleague abandoned the idea of meaning in name of the destabilization of all concepts, he also lost the theoretical connection with the world of communications that we produce. In fact this disconnection is real enough: it is very much alive in theory. Recent performative and non-representational approaches, for example, have emphasized a view of practice as almost automatic, fed more by preconscious impulses than by thought or discursive acts. However, despite being underestimated in recent theories and ontologies, communication is central to our daily lives a fact certainly reinforced by the virtual omnipresence of mobile and digital communication systems and devices. We are more communicative and more deeply immersed in information than ever. It is this deepening of our capacity for communication through language that I wish to explore in relation to the space of architecture and the city. And I wish to do so in order to emphasize communication as a central aspect in the relation between society and space.

Diverse approaches over the last few decades have emphasized space as an active part of social processes. However I wish to explore this relation in a different way to most of these analyses in particular by foregrounding the role of space in practices of association, i.e. the passage from individual to social acts enabled through communication. I wish to interpret this communicative relation between acts and actors as a process constituted via the medium of space, among other media. My proposition is that if communication processes are really central to the reproduction of societies as social theorists such as Jrgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann claim, and if there is indeed a profound relation between social processes and spatial forms, as scholars of space such as David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre indicate, then we can identify a potential role for space in the communications that constitute associations. Here I look to show that although space is becoming a central theme beyond the disciplines originally dedicated to the topic (architecture, urbanism, geography), a systematic theory of how our practices are related through webs of communication oral, written and image-based and their spaces still appears to be missing, both from the spatial disciplines and from those focused on the social. My aim is to describe the place of space in the constant (re)production of the systems of interactions that constitute socialities at two moments, interrelated and frequently overlapping but with their own temporal and spatial conditions: (i) space as a referential context for our practices. We relate to places and buildings as contexts for our joint acts and for our communication within their borders. (ii) As actors we appropriate urban spaces as a way of relating our acts with those performed in other places and times, and with their effects as part of the constant reconstruction of interactive systems expressed in/through space. One may relate this aim to Latours sociology of association and its aim of render[ing] social connections traceable (Latour, 2004:16) but instead of pursuing the movement of actants or summoning an absolute ontological symmetry between human and non-human agencies, I shall search to identify the ontological substrate that actually make up the connections between acts, actors, as effects of meanings in our efforts to build associations. I also wish to explore an alternative path to current ontologies of the social and material through a concept able to recognize how material specificities might matter, looking into connections mediated by an active space a space able to feed back into communication and further associations. This approach shall reconstruct the traces between acts as traces enacted in space through a concept still little explored: a Husserlian notion of meaning as reference. I wish to highlight these processes in such a way that it would not only be legitimate to extend the communicative constitution of practice to space, but if we wish to explain the role of space in social life and the processes of association it would also be an epistemological necessity. Practices of association


Let us turn to a few concepts that can assist this material exploration of our forms of producing socialities. Certain terms are typically used to refer to the problem of social practice, including act and action, as well as the term practice itself. Though derived from relatively distinct theoretical backgrounds, their meanings at least partially overlap. We can begin with the definition of an act as a trace or a moment of our acting, materially perceivable but without defined borders in time and space, that may continue until interrupted or silenced, like the act of speaking, the act of cooperating in a given situation, or the bodily act of the gesture. This conception of the act includes the spatiality of the gesture that constitutes and carries the act materially and other forms of causing effects in the world around us, namely the production of material artefacts or meaningful (not necessarily intelligible) signs that may be penetrated by others in communication, i.e. disclosed through interpretation (not necessarily understood as intended by the acting agent). This initial definition can be expanded through concepts of social action. Spanning from Max Weber to more contemporary notions found in the work of Jrgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann, social action can be defined as acts that overtly social in their character, i.e. produce effects in the form of objects, signs, texts and hypertexts, and that are communicable and therefore disclosable by other actors, implying their reactions, bodily and discursive interactions, ranges of partial agreement and disagreement, omission and reflection. The action emerges as social when our acts and their effects are related to the acts and effects of other people as part of our acting together in the spatial context of the place and between places, both simultaneously and in sequences of time, frequently with repercussions beyond the spatiotemporal situation of the actors at the moment of acting. The notion of practice, for its part, traverses philosophy and social science, to encompass the idea of praxis as the whole of human action, involving mental and bodily activity alike and including our modes of understanding things and our emotional states. It also involves the routinization of acting through culturally defined norms the nexus of doings and sayings (Schatzky, 1996). My interpretation takes social practice to be collective in kind, constituted by the interaction in both the presence and absence of bodies, and focuses on the moment of our interaction, when the effects of what we do become part of what other actors do or will do. This is also the moment of the production of social practice that take the form of communication, whether these are semiotic, practical or material, surrounding even the artefacts we produce and exchange. It is from the construction of social practice that I derive my use of the term association. The word is generally used to describe the association between actors. However I prefer to use the term to describe the transition from the individual act to social action via communication, an exchange mediated by symbols that permeate even instrumental and economic exchanges. Hence my emphasis on the practices of association. Naturally practice cannot be isolated as a unit nor abstracted from its social dimension. Reckwitz (2002) reminds us that to say that practices are social practices is indeed a tautology. However this view, accurate as it seems, runs the risk of !

assuming the social condition of practice as something given, unproblematic, and of obscuring precisely what needs to be clarified: namely, how this social character is constructed. If we imagine what we need to do to make our acts social through the constant efforts of interaction and mutual understanding made during our communicative and material exchanges across space, frequently involving different places and relating past actions and those happening in the present and future we can see that this process is incredibly difficult to produce. The emphasis on association is a means of evoking something that we take for granted in our social experience: the laborious construction of momentary relations between acts, which lead to a tremendously complex system of actions a construction subject to tension and divergence at every moment, in each interaction. What can we say about space in this largely invisible and subtle construction of social practice? Not coincidentally, the role of space in association processes as a problem of communication has been underestimated in social theory just as much as association has been an underestimated theme in spatial approaches. Giddens (1984), for instance, reduces it to a system of interaction whose production and actual ramifications are assumed more than explained. More detailed spatial approaches to association tend to be restricted to material exchanges in the economy.. Indeed even the recent approaches to the materiality of communication tend to focus on its technological aspects, forgetting, in particular, to acknowledge how much our everyday communication depends on the infrastructural level of meaning and the specific materiality of cities. We shall see that the lack of attention paid to the conditions of association has led theory to overlook its dependence on the materiality of space, and fail to trace the paths taken by association between our acts and in recognizing its centrality as the flux of social reproduction. I therefore propose refocusing our attention on the communicative conditions of associations in everyday life and to the role of space in these associations. I am talking of the possibility of the production of an urbanized space not being just a contingency but of encapsulating in itself an essential condition of the association of our acts and the production of the immense and elusive matrix of social practice. Space as a means to association How can space clarify the way in which practice is produced and socialized? Approximating association to space is not a trivial problem. We need to comprehend the place that space occupies in the associative process itself in other words, examine both the nature of space and the nature of the social act, as well as the moment of association. One of the effects of communication is the relative coordination of our acts: acts of mutual understanding relate our actions and combine individual acts in complexes of interaction (Habermas, 1984). The social act is ambiguous by nature: it is part of the actors contextualized intentions (conscious or unconscious) and experience; and it has effects, outcomes or consequences (intentional or otherwise) that extend beyond its own duration and that propagate beyond the context in which it was made potentially connecting with !

the acts of other actors in other places. Hence our acts have effects beyond their spatial horizon (the borders of the place and the architectural space) and their temporal horizon (the duration of the social event situated in the place). Acts linked in the form of communication can potentially extend and resonate beyond such borders. Can we find a similar ambiguity in space itself namely, the ambiguity of situating events as context of our acts, and constituting the connection between them? Were we able to locate this ambiguity, it might prove to be a point of contact between act and space. This aim in mind, we would have to locate a role of space beyond the situation or background of acts, in the transition between its context, in its ramifications with the acts occurring in other places, forming chains of associations through distance and time into wider social landscapes simultaneously in the future and elsewhere in the past: space as context and as a connection of practices. We can begin with the first role, context. How is the space that we produce in the form of the city capable of defining the context of our everyday interactions? How is it capable of mediating our face-to-face associations? We need a concept of space capable of recognizing it as part of what Giddens calls the reciprocity of interaction, the communication and mutual interpretations between the participants of a social situation. The second role, connection, could only be asserted if space constituted the connection between social situations and practices occurring in different places (or moments) and if it constituted such connections inherently. As these connections are produced through communicative exchanges, this role could only be viable were space part of the contents of these exchanges the informational and interpretative contents produced by our acts and exchanged during our interactions. Were this the case, the spaces of the city could find a place in the associations that eventually produce the elusive trajectories of practice. However space is a phenomenon defined by a visible and durable materiality. So how can it be part of the informational contexts of the interaction? Or, conversely, how can apparently immaterial social contents be present in space? Space as social information The presence of social contents in space, intriguing and improbable as it may seem, is in fact a common idea. Indeed perhaps it is the only idea in common among sociospatial theories perhaps almost all that they do share. But confusion and divergence exist concerning what these contents are and where they are manifested or located in space. The following questions need to be investigated then: what and where are the social of space? We can start with a basic element of urban space: the space constructed by architecture. I begin by identifying three instances of space where the social could be expressed all of them recognized by different theoretical traditions. (a) The physical space of architectural structures the compartmentalization and sequences of spaces inside buildings. If something of the social is present in physical space, it should include the layout of the building and its compartments and their distribution. In fact this presumed !

presence is found at the centre of architectural practice in which architects design built structures in apparently specific ways for each social activity. Theories of the form-function relation extol this element. The sequences and forms of the compartments would retain some kind of organizational logic, a specific projection of the activitys organization and nature. Hence this physical structure could contain traces of the social embedded within it. But what would the extent of this projection be? This relation would not be a homology an isomorphic relation between the structure of the activity and the physical structure of its architectural space. First, even imagining that we can isolate a teleological thread in any given activity (that is, a predetermined flow and end, as frequently assumed in the reduction of human activity to the notion of function), we have to recognize that activities can possess variable internal actions and interactions, which may unfold in entirely distinct directions. The discipline and practice of architecture was historically constructed around the possibility of finding this functional thread of activities, assuming a rigidity in the flow of social practice that simply cannot be the case. The possibility of variation and randomness may even be the very core of an activity.1 On the other hand, the fact that many buildings are converted to other kinds without any substantial change to their physical structure shows that the same structure may contain the codes of different activities (the relations between the parties involved in the activity, or between actors taking part in it, including the order and location of the encounters and interactions within the building). If the same building can support different activities, then we need to recognize that traces of the social in the spatiality of architecture are not always sufficiently specific. For all practical purposes, not only do buildings retain little specific social information on relational patterns between the actions taking place within the activity, or between the actors who perform them: the activities in themselves tend to leave too many generic traits in space for the latter to express them unequivocally. Also, the physical nature of the space does not reveal the kind of informational exchanges that occur within it. And it is precisely here that we reach the limits of the physical space of the building as an absorption and projection of social information. For space to be able to retain specific social information, it needs to be more differentiated. We must look for a dimension of a space capable of retaining traces of the meanings produced by practice and exchanged in communication. We do not need to go far. (b) We may now move from the configuration to form and the visuality of architecture, still in relation to the physical dimension of space. Here we encounter the possibility of social information embedded in the architectural signs, read in the very form (especially the external form) of the building what we could call a semiotic space as an expression of social meanings, something recognized since J-F. Blondel and Goethe as character and more recently in Rowe (1982), Norberg-Schulz (1980) and in Veselys (1987) notion of representational architecture (see !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The idea of randomness is naturally opposed to the idea of teleology. This possibility is problematized in studies of spaces of creativity and innovation, which have identified precisely the need to intensify the randomness of encounters as a factor in the diversity of communicative exchanges (see Penn et al., 1999); Moultrie et al., 2007).


Forty, 2000). The capacity of the visual signs of architecture to capture the nature of the activity manifested within is, however, very limited. We cannot necessarily differentiate whether a glass facade belongs to a bank, or an office block, or a company. Even given their strong presence in our daily lives, providing information on numerous aspects of the activities surrounding us in the city, architectural signs lack sufficiently precise connotative power to represent the specific nature of the practices and informational exchanges hosted by their buildings. If there is a richer informational relation between practice and space, therefore, it must be present beyond its physicality albeit still associated with it. (c) We have seen that for it to possess a role in association, space must be capable of assuming more specific and complex meanings, closer to the degree of specificity that our acts and interactions are capable of producing and transmitting. But how can space achieve this degree of definition as social information? For this to be possible, the informational constitution of social practice must include the appropriation of space: the moment when practice emerges and is spatially situated. We may devise such an idea from Wittgensteins (1953) theory of meaning. We may recognize the nature of the activity in the traces and artefacts left by our acts, and identify in these traces the meanings attributed to them by our performative acts themselves. As in the linguistic communication of meanings, space tells us about the practices that it supports and expresses. In this case, space not only represents the activity: it is enacted and, as such, laden with meanings produced during our actions and interactions. Meanings become inherently associated with space as traces left in it by our acts. Hence the meanings read by people appropriating spaces may be more specific. Associated with spaces, such meanings naturally lack the same precision as those richly connotative meanings woven through language. But they do have the same informational specificity as the nature of the practices performed there. We can call this Wittgensteinian dimension of space semantic space: spaces mean as much as our acts, precisely because they are performed, semanticized by our acts. The proposition of a semantic role of space is supported by a notion that is well-known in theories of language and speech from concepts of context in ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), theories of language (Searle, 1969), hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1977) and communicative action theory (Habermas, 1984) though originally without much elaboration of its spatiality: our performative and discursive acts require contexts for them to be understood by other actors during our interactions. Our phrases can only be fully comprehended if the people communicating with us share the same interpretative background. We need to tune our interpretations to a shared context, recognized by all the participants of the situation. In everyday communication a phrase is never uttered in isolation: semantic contents exchanged between participants converge on the basis of the context. As a participant in the interaction, the interpreter must enter the context of reference (Habermas, 1987). This is where we can locate the role of the context and of the traces of meanings enacted and read within it. The contexts meanings are used to constitute the semantic contents of !

the interaction. The context connects the more intrinsic and detailed components of the interaction with wider properties of social practice (Giddens, 1984). However in order to involve space as an active element in the association of practice, we need to relate contexts to their spatiality: we need to recognize that contexts are spatially defined through the borders of the places found in the city (architectures, open spaces, streets, etc.). The idea of context is today widespread in geography and other disciplines involving spatial studies (e.g. Simonsen, 1991; Thrift, 1996), but without explicit relation to communication or to the associative processes of practice. Nevertheless, we may construct this relation observing the role of space in the definition of social situations. Goffmans (1961) concept of region as a place defined by borders, developed upon Wright and Barkers concept of behavioural setting where mutual expectations are associated with places, certainly offer us means to do so. We can note that our endeavours to comprehend the intentions and behaviours of other actors are facilitated by our recognition of the place and its space as defined for the purpose in question. Space has the contextual role of establishing the conditions of communication: by crossing the borders of an architectonic space or an urban place, a new context is immediately absorbed by our cognition as a kind of interpretive background, shared by the participants of the situation. Thereafter the relations between space and the acts of mutual understanding and communication unfold in moments of association, still circumscribed to the place: (1) Crossing the borders of the place involves the stimulus to attend to the new context and social situation, clearly establishing the need for recognition of the new codes of interaction and of the mutual expectations of behaviour. The context is spatially and cognitively defined: it comes to be assumed by the participants of the social situation as the place itself. (2) Space therefore has the potential to reduce the need to define or redefine a shared context (discursively, through observation or memory) and has effects on the fluidity of the interaction,. This contextual role of space implies the reduction of the risks of noise in communication. (3) Hence by supporting the interpretations of meanings exchanged in communication, the meanings of urban and architectural spaces become active semantic resources in the production of our interactions and their complex connotative contents. Performative and communicative acts may involve the semantic dimension of space as much as its sensory dimension. (4) Space can, therefore, become an active part of the unfolding of individual acts into communicative associations within the place.


We have seen that space can only be completely intrinsic to the social if it possesses an active role in communication. Only the semantic density produced by our own practices in space would be enough to allow it to anchor our interpretations and interactions contextually. This argument finally enables us to expand the role of space in association. Here we need to abandon the Kantian vision of immanent essences and stable contents contained in space as a category of experience in order to recognize a semantic relation produced in space by practice itself. Interestingly the observation of traces of meanings enacted in space and able to support communication originates in Wittgensteins idea that meanings cannot be simply attributed to things, but are enacted in our practices an idea expanded through theories of context, language and speech. It is this form of producing meanings that may ensure a profound role for space in the social construction of practice itself: in this view, space becomes part not only of the act of each actor but also of the association of acts of different actors and does so upon architecture and place. If the theories on the importance of contexts for communication are correct, and if contexts can indeed by associated with places and spatial borders, we can recognize that, by sustaining our interpretations, contextual space can affect the course of our communications. It helps actively define the paths that our acts and interactions take within social situations, not only as a support and physical scenario, but as a medium for the input of information in the communicative connections between our acts. We have seen the consideration of architectural and urban spaces as an informational support for our acts and their connections at the level of social situations. However the role of space does not cease at the physical and temporal borders of the social situation: while space is a contextual part of interaction, space can also be active in associations beyond these borders. To perceive this active presence of space as a mediator for interactions across distance, a role usually reserved for language or communication technologies, we need to understand how space forms part of the webs of communicative exchanges between actors, or how space can connect acts happening in different places and moments. What property would allow space to become part of the connectivity of the practice and production of systems of interactions that constitute socialities? Between act and space: meaning as reference and connection We need a concept capable of capturing the bridge that links acts to space, allowing us to ascertain the apparently endless connectivity between acts see why acts connect with each other and how space is involved in these connections. More to the point, if we wish to fully apprehend the role of space in the connectivity of practice, we need to show how this mediation of space is inevitable, a necessity of practice itself. This is, naturally, an inference that is at once robust and risky. We need to examine the question carefully, therefore. The connections between acts and spaces have recently been explored as a field of inherent relationality, in the form of the effects produced by semiotic networks of actors, objects and hybrid !

entities, in Actor-Network Theory (ANT) developed by Latour (1999, 2004) and others. Their theory follows on from earlier post-structuralist approaches and their anti-humanist critiques of the rational subject based on Deleuze, Foucault and others. ANT shares some points in common with non-representational approaches, as Thrift (2008) calls them, and performative approaches, as expounded by Schechner (1988) and Butler (1997): the view of the subject immersed in a push to practice and thought in action, emphasizing the situated, pre-linguistic and embodied states that give intelligibility (not necessarily meaning) to human action (Thrift, 1996:6). These theories emphasize the idea that actors and objects are forged in a multiplicity of actions and interactions. They centre on the external rather than the internal dimension of symbolic meanings typical of representational models of the world. In ANT, especially, the heterogeneities and physical borders between things are dissolved cast into the fire of the dualisms that shape our understanding of reality (Law, 1999). We can certainly agree on the need to avoid fixing borders in the relations between subjects and objects, and on the importance of the between-ness of collective action and of an inherent relationality between humans and non-humans. Any approach to the relations between practice and space must indeed overcome the artificial dualisms between actors, artefacts and built environment. However we must also avoid the excesses of ignoring the material differences between things like those between spaces and actions for a simple reason: such differences may be an active part of their relation. The spatiality of our cities and above all the heterogeneity of urban form (the differences between spaces) may have close relations to and effects on our practices, appropriations and forms of acting collectively, as emphasized by other theories from economics to Marxist approaches in geography. In relation to agency, meanwhile, we must also avoid reducing the actor to a mere network effect if our aim is to reaffirm the capacity of actors to overcome the limitations of their own contexts through their actions. Hence I insist on the need for an approach capable of recognizing the importance of both material heterogeneity and the heterogeneity of acting subjects, such that we are really capable of identifying the role of the materiality of space in the association of our actions. Here we touch on a key point. We need to describe a property that produces connectivity between things one able to bring to the forefront space with its intrinsic qualities, which differentiate it from any other thing a quite distinct view of relationality indeed. Steps into such property may be found already in Husserls (1976) definitions of indication (signs that have an external relation to other object by a process of association) and reference (the power of an expression to relate itself to an objectivity of some sort, via meaning) (Drummond, 2007). Interestingly, Harmans (2002) recent analysis of the ontological condition of tools addresses this property as referentiality. Interpreting Heidegger (Husserls student), Harman associates being and meaning of the tool as one and the same, and recalls the problem of defining entities as a central dispute in the history of philosophy a conflict which Rorty sees as between atomist and !

holism: the assumption that there can be entities which are what they are totally independent of all relations between them, and the assumption that all entities are nodes in a set of relations (Rorty in Harman, 2002:166). Heideggers definition of a relational totality as the structure of the world clearly relates to the second type of entities: World [...] is not an independent void or projective screen standing at a distance from beings; it is the referential contexture in which these beings themselves are stationed, and which they alone enact (Harman, 2002:27). Tools express such property with tremendous clarity. Tools vanish into something beyond itself. The meaning of the tool is the visible termination of its underground action. The meaning of equipment is determined by that for the sake of which it acts [...] Tools execute for the sake of [Worumwillen] reference, not because people run across them, but because they are utterly determinate in their referential function that is, because they already stand at the mercy of innumerable terminal points of meaning (Harman, 2002:29). Harman defines reference as part of an ambiguity of meaning. My own interpretation of meaning also has strong convergences with Luhmanns (1995) self-referentiality. The meaning of something is a strongly referential construction: its identity and meaning only emerge in relation to other objects and meanings in an endless chain of meaning. In fact, meaning has a duality: it is an event in our experience and also an experience of reference. The meaning of something objects, what we do or make, the places we inhabit is perceived as a presence within our perceptual field: it is also captured as information that defines its meaning in our cognition. However the construction of the meaning of this thing is never contained in its essence alone, but in associations in our practice and our relations with other objects in our perception. We are now able to include space as the material counterpart of practices as part of such referential construction. We know that the relation between acts is above all a social requirement: the material and informational reproduction of a society requires continuity and the momentary binding of the acts of different actors. The infrastructures of these interactions, even those that are instrumental in kind, acquire semantic pathways: they are constituted as communicative exchanges. Communication is always mediated by the transmission of information and meaning (Luhmann, 1995). The continuity and binding of acts is also a kind of effect of the act itself: acting implies that something changes in the world (Habermas, 1984) invoking reactions and new acts. We also know that space offers the material support for us to act, frequently involving our face-to-face interaction in architectural and city spaces. But as we have seen too, this is not all that space does. Space has cognitive roles: it absorbs and projects traces of social information relating to the actions that it sustains from the visual information of the faades and the information provided to our movements by the layout of the place or building, to the rich information produced within space by practice itself. These roles have been defined as informational dimensions, physical, semiotic and semantic, of architectonic and urban space.


Could these latent meanings in space feed practice and become the bridge that links acts to space, and through space, acts between themselves? How could meaning have such role and property? Generally we understand the meaning of something as its signification or identity. However the meaning of a thing depends on its relation to other things and to their own meanings. For example, the meaning of the object residential building is defined by its relation to the act of dwelling or inhabiting. This specificity differentiates it from other types of building. The act of inhabiting is also defined by a series of other meanings and acts, such as protection, shelter, conviviality and so on, and these by new chains of relations.2 This renewed concept of meaning may be explored as a form of re-interpreting the relations between things that we produce in the world around us, while maintaining active the experience of the identities of things. This idea allows us to recognize differences of materiality as key factors in the relation between practice and space. Referential meaning is constituted by crossing the borders of different things without ignoring their inherent material qualities. It operates rather by recognizing these qualities defining itself through them, reaffirming their specificities in our cognition, at the same time as it affirms their identity, defined referentially. I suggest that this connection is a central aspect of what we have seen called, in recent approaches such as ANT, inherent relationality in social and physical reality but in a way entirely distinct from the abolition of material differences and the borders between things proposed by ANT. We can finally expand the Wittgensteinian concept of meaning as a construction of practice to include the property of meaning as connection: the meaning of something can only be defined by its connections with other acts, objects, words and spaces. In this endless chain of references constituted in our practices and cognition, we can explicitly include the space of the city. Based on the essential connection of meaning, we can perceive space mediating acts in situations in different places within the same city or beyond a connection which is in fact multiple, perhaps the only intrinsic connection between things as distinct as our acts and spaces. The referentiality of meaning effectively reaffirms spaces unique materiality as the quality defining its equally unique role as a medium of association a different medium to all other media, such as language or communication technologies. This ontological place of space in association is only distinguishable theoretically simply because practice does not occur free of space, its extension, form and meaning, and because space demands our appropriation for it to be imbued with meaning. This involves a form of elusive connection between act and space in the meaning shared by them, a connection that occurs when we enact the spaces around us. As we shall see, this occurs at the precise moment when the meaning of a place is recognized, as well as during appropriation and communication in these spaces. And it remains active when we relate what

This idea recalls Giddenss (1984) argument that a house is only understood as such if the observer recognizes the object as a place of habitation with a field of properties specified by its modes of use in human activity.


happens in one social situation with another, in a different place. However we have still to describe the associations at distance. How do such webs of acts, people and places emerge? Space in the endless connectivity of practice We are now in a position to examine the place of space in the emergence of practice as social practice. There are two complementary but frequently related moments, implying above all the spatial bifurcations of practice in different localities within and between cities. (i) The appropriation of urban space as a referential context for the materialization of our acts. As we have seen, we relate to places as contexts for communication and for the connection of our acts within their borders. Individual act ! space [context] ! acts associated in communication (ii) The progressive construction of webs of interaction mediated by meanings enacted beyond the borders of places in urbanized spaces as a referential system for practice. Individual act ! space [connection] ! relations to other acts and actors, places and times Let us examine these two related moments in more detail. In our collective acting, we gather information from space all the time as we participate in social situations. We also appropriate space by recognizing the role of these places as contexts for differentiated actions. We are guided by forms of spatial information. We recognize the meanings of built forms and open spaces, and of their association with specific practices and activities. We are able to accumulate such knowledge based on our continuous exposure as we move through the citys spaces. This heuristically gathered knowledge (cf. Portugali, 2011) based on the experience of discovering the city little by little is accumulated in memory as the association between practices and the places and localizations where they occur. But spatial knowledge is not merely accumulative: we make inferences about the probable localizations of activities that interest us, based on our understanding of the relations between them and urban space. Even in the experience of the foreigner or stranger, when we have no knowledge of the city where we are located, we can anticipate where a certain type of activity is more likely to be found. Someone who has recently arrived in a new city is capable of inferring that a certain activity will be more easily found, say, in a more accessible street. In fact this process involves an intuitive, preconscious and pre-discursive knowledge about the city in the form of paths and the distribution of locations, produced collectively and historically to lend support to our activities. We recognize that the city possesses heterogeneities, just as we


understand that these heterogeneities take the form of a partially recognizable, intelligible structure in the form of centralities or areas of different accessibilities. More crucially we intuitively understand the reasons that animate the very process producing heterogeneities in the space of the city. We understand the ways in which the our movement and path choices form an active part of this process, such as finding certain kinds of activities along some routes and in some areas more than others.3 This kind of pre-discursive knowledge animates our practices and confers them an a priori spatiality at the very moment of intending (frequently unconsciously and pre-discursively) the act to be performed a spatiality active even in our imagination. This is a profound form of knowledge of the material requirements for our interactions to occur: a recognition that urban spatialities possess key properties for our acting and for the transition from individual to social act. Places and built forms, components of the urban environment, are materially and semantically differentiated. They are point of reference that contain properties of the events to which they provide support. This referential function of space is fundamental to our practices: the appropriation of urban space as cognitively structured information helps us to enact socially (cf. Haken and Portugali, 2003). Now we may devise a key point of my argument. Space is produced and appropriated as a referential contexture for performative acts: it comprises information on practices and possibilities for practices. Already at the scale of the city, space is a network of units of social information a form of the presentation of the social world to itself. Such constellation of reference and topoi of practices seems vital both to the recursive aspect of these practices, enabling the continuation of interactions and the stability of the relationships between actors as traces of social organization, and to the randomness of interactions. Randomness brings about interactions that inject novelty into a social system, including new relationships. From the actors viewpoint, therefore, things that constitute a social world (everyday activities, the existence of differentiated actors) are known by means of urban space as social information. Space becomes a way for us to gradually unveil the social world through contacts with distinct modes of practice and behaviour in different social situations. The knowledge of acting collectively is not constructed consciously, nor taught discursively: it is enacted during our social experiences in the city. This leads us to the next item: As actors, we access and appropriate urban spaces as a way of implicating our acts with other acts materialized in these spaces. Here, there seems to be an overlooked but key fact: differentiated spaces are the loci of differentiated practices.4 The heterogeneity of urban space renders the distribution of social activities intelligible in the form of recognizable patterns of accessibility, location and density (usually a subject in urban studies and spatial economics),
3 A number of traditions exist that highlight the relations between the localization of activities and the patterns of urban structuration, such as spatial economics and urban configurational studies, spanning from Hansen (1959) to GoffetteNagot (2000). 4 This observation refers to any culture whose division of labour is manifested spatially. See Massey (1984) for a description of the spatial division of labour in capitalist society, and Hillier and Hanson (1984) for anthropological descriptions of non-urban spatial cultures.



enabling us to increase the connectivity of our actions. In temporal terms, acts also imply earlier acts, which allow us to use their outcomes, just as our own acts produce outcomes that will be used in other places or transmitted to them. These implicated actions form courses of action in webs whose knots are spatio-temporal situations of encounter and exchange between actors in different places of a city and in other cities. The outcomes of our acts can therefore be accessed in other places were actors can intervene, thereby generating new acts and outcomes that can then be taken to other places and so on. Buildings, places and locations assume the role of knots in the association of acts, such as looking for a service in a particular street of the city and becoming involved in exchanges there, or accessing the workplace to perform activities in cooperation with others, or socializing with friends in a bar or a park. Here we reach a key moment in the emergence of practice as social. The citys spaces connect with the actions of different participants and thereby take on a fundamental role in the combination of individual acts in complexes of interaction. Seen through the prism of society, the elusive unfolding and ramifications of social acts5 are anchored momentarily as successive spatial knots in the form of activities and their localizations. These webs are mediated by threads of meaning constituted by the references between acts and spaces. The referentiality of meanings becomes fundamental for the production of networks of practice, arranged, accessed and related through city spaces. Or in other words, if meaning is referential, and if space assumes meanings, then space may be part of the webs of reference embedded in actions, their meanings and their effects. This is the moment of a growing association and emergence of systems of interaction through referential space. The importance of this level of everyday relations cannot be stressed enough: it is there at the very core of social reproduction. As a material and semantic field, the city assumes a central practical and cognitive role in the relation between actors and in the structuring and constant change of the social world a role, I therefore suggest, not dissimilar to and as important as that of language. Instead of a conclusion: could association shape space itself? By employing a concept of referential space, we can consider space as endogenous to practice, and our practices as continually impregnated with space. This concept posits meaning as a connection between the social and the spatial, and space as a material medium for the production of systems of interaction. Urban space seems vital to the transition from individual acts to social action

5 Associations through performative and discursive acts and the diffusion and appropriation of their outcomes form the networks of interaction that constitute the volatile structures of the social world. This vision of societies as an effect of communication emphasizes the production of structures as communicative processes. Systems that only consist of autopoietically produced events, that is, they only last when and as long as connective events can be produced as recursive networks (Luhmann 1998:56). Networks of acts and their effects occur within institutionalized channels of organizing practice, also supported by technical communication and information processing systems.



mediated by meanings. This transition is the first level of a relation between practice and space: the proposition of a role of the space of the city in association as a communicative achievement. And what of the contrary? Has practice anything to do with the form in which we produce space and urban spaces in particular? In fact the proposition of an inherent relation between practice and space through shared meanings can only be complete if we consider a space produced so as to be a part of practice. The semantic and material structuration of cities must be inherently related to the communicative and material requirements of association. Such an idea would have at least two implications: (a) association must be an active condition in the production of space, like a force generating material structures in the form of the city; (b) urban spatialities would be produced as a constellation of social references that are accessible, interpretable and appropriable by actors in their acts. The form of urban space is generated and progressively transformed as an expression of the connectivity of social practice, an expression of the semantic references and material implications between acts, and an expression of the impulse to interaction that generates socialities. In other words, the intense and diverse association of practice involves the cognitive and physical differentiation of space in the form of cities. Changes in systems of interactions would generate tensions in its systems of spaces, and vice-versa. These implications may be certainly controversial and need to be more adequately explored. We find interesting evidence that there is, in fact, a relation between a particular sphere of practice work and production and urban structures in of economic geography. From Alfred Weber to Paul Krugman, the city was defined as a response to the problem of economic interaction and the possibility of a total dispersal of economic units over the landscape. If this is true, we can relate this argument to the internal formations of the city and suggest a continuity between these processes: the extension of the logic of distance found in economic geography to the interior of cities. The problem of distance is not suspended once we find ourselves within intraurban space: competition for location appears to shape urban structure from within too. The extension of this logic of space would be similarly repeated in the logic of practice. The effects of the production of urban structures capable of minimizing distances between potentially interactive actors cannot be limited to a single sphere of practice: the relational effects of urban space on actions necessarily go beyond economic action to enable, mediate and connect every type of action and interaction, even the non-instrumental. Can also consider that different formations of these spaces entail different potential effects on the inherently mutual and relational character of acts? Recent evidences of how spatially dense environments may foster face-to-face interaction and communication has been brought about by approaches in urban economics (Glaeser et al, 1992; Gordon and Ikeda, 2011) and social physics (Bettencourt, 2013). Although such studies may allow us to think that the different formations found in cities from centralities to areas of difficult to access or distant streets can intensify or limit possibilities for the transition from individual to social acts, we need now a proper account of !

the social implications at play. My personal hypothesis is that the association of practice involves the production of spatial formations deeply embedded in the very materiality of the urban as a material condition for the emergence of communication mediated by the body. Urban spatialities would have the effect of stimulating (or controlling) the possibilities for communication, so as to include levels of both contingency and causality necessary to the generation of encounters and the reproduction of bonds and socialities. These inferences allow us to consider space as a form of structuring informational and communicative networks in which socialities are immersed; a space produced to mediate and connect practices in social constructions just as extensively as language; a referential substrate that provides organization and contingency, structure and surprise to communications in which social relations unfold. This semanticized space indicates that space has participated in the transition from the act in itself to social action. The present approach is not a proposition of a new ontology far from it. It is an approach developed very much like sewing, that is, from within and between existing approaches, tying and expanding concepts rather than searching for the next turn. This option allowed us to shed light on connections assumed as inherent relationality, here reinterpreted as referentiality expressed through the ambiguity of meaning and able to incorporate the acting subject as a creator of signs, fluxes and networks; and to capture spatial traces of the relations between our acts: traces active at the precise moment of association, constituting the very possibility of any association; traces produced through the relation between communication and space. By addressing these traces, the objectives of an approach centred on the communicative processes of association can be set out as follows: to propose space as a material and semantic foundation to the communicability of practice, and to elucidate one of its roles in social reproduction by showing referential space to be a medium for association.

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