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GeoJ ournal 31.

3 247- 250 247


1993 (Nov) by Kluwer Academic Publishers
Spatial Imaginary and Geography:
A Plea for the Geography of Representations 1)
Bailly, Antoine S., Prof. Dr., University of Geneva, Department of Geography,
Blvd. Carl Vogt, 1211 Geneva, Switzerland
ABSTRACT: After twenty years of work on the geography of representations, how is it still
possible to define geography as "the science of space", ie as direct knowledge of material
reality? This conception of the discipline - based on Cartesian precepts of evidence (eg the
observer's independent certainty), reductionism (ie a disaggregation into sets of simple
elements), causality (ie the presupposition of a linear linkage between cause and effect) and
exhaustiveness (ie the certainty that nothing essential has been omitted) - has been thrown
into question by the geography of representations' holistic approach. How can our scientific
practices be separated fi'om our interior existence with its affective and emotional aspects? Is
not scientific action an extension of being? Mustn' t the geographer, above and beyond the
observation of concrete phenomena, also understand the subtle and complex - at times
random and hidden - links which unite human beings and their life-space, be it from the
viewpoint of the poet, or of all those who take alternative approaches to geography? What I
would like to demonstrate is (1) how in an historically and socially given environment, the
individual constructs his own reality in linking together the structural, functional and
symbolic; (2) how the representation of the landscape is related to our existential experience;
and (3) how the imaginary and the real are connected in each place.
Man is Geographic Knowledge
To t he pr ecept o f evi dence, one mus t oppos e t hat o f
subj ect i vi sm, al l owi ng us, as it does, t o account f or h u ma n
i rrat i onal i t y; t he pr ecept o f r educt i oni s m mu s t be r epl aced
by t hat o f compl exi t y, f or t he mo r e t hat a gi ven site st udi ed
is di saggr egat ed, t he mor e compl ex it b e c o me s and t he
gr eat er t he n u mb e r o f di mens i ons one fi nds; pr obabi l i sm
is t o be oppos e d t o causal i sm, as it is i mpossi bl e t o f or esee
ever yt hi ng ( except i n r a n d o m t er ms) ; exhaus t i venes s mus t
be r epl aced by t he i deol ogi cal , ie t he part i al r epr es ent at i on
o f p h e n o me n a bas ed on our expl i ci t and i mpl i ci t choi ces
(Bailly 1984).
The geogr apher , like all r esear cher s i n t he soci al
sci ences, finds hi ms e l f f aced wi t h a f abul ous and compl ex
wor l d, a chaot i c swirl o f exi st ent i al exper i ences: s houl d he
want t o unde r s t a nd its cr eat i on and evol ut i on, and t o fi nd
or der in t he chaos, he will have t o accept t he r a n d o m
char act er o f change and t he appar ent i rrat i onal i t y o f h u ma n
behavi or . He will al so have t o t ake i nt er est i n t he symbol i cs
o f pl aces (as did G. Bachel ard), i n t hei r myt hi cal aspect s (as
did A. Cauquel i n) , and i n t hei r subj ect i ve c onnot a t i on (as
did P. Sansot ). He mus t f ur t her cons i der t opophi l i a or
t opophobi a, l oved or hat ed pl aces, as Yi Fu Tuan woul d say.
Space is not hi ng t aken i n and o f itself, r at her it is r el at ed t o
t he cons ci ous nes s or i deol ogy o f he who lives it; t her eby
space b e c o me s an exi st ent i al pl ace. I pr ef er t he t e r m
"place", be s t owe d wi t h si gni fyi ng power by huma ni s t
geogr apher s , t o t he mo r e geomet r i cal t e r m "space" (whi ch,
like t i me, is a uni ver sal pri nci pl e) and t he mo r e in-
st i t ut i onal t e r m "t erri t ory".
Accor di ng t o Ent r i ki n (1976), pl ace "is not a col l ect i on
o f empi r i cal l y obser vabl e obj ect s and event s, but r at her is
t he r epos i t or y o f meani ng". A pl ace says what we are, and I
l eave t o rat i onal i st s t he pl easur e o f bel i evi ng t hey can
r et r anscr i be pl ace t h r o u g h exact ness. I pr ef er t o seek an
unde r s t a ndi ng o f pl aces i n t hei r i nner ri chness, t hei r
hi st ori cal and social meani ng, and t hei r sense f or ma n
( Rel ph 1976), usi ng t he wor ks o f poet s and novel i st s, and
t he tales t ol d by t hei r i nhabi t ant s, pr oj ect i ng as t he y do
t hei r i nner sel ves i nt o t he nar r at i on.
Hu ma n bei ngs are geogr aphi cal act ors; pl aces are t hei r
l i fe-space, all r el at i ons are mi xed t oge t he r t her ei n i n a
t angl e o f links whi ch bear our per s onal feel i ngs, col l ect i ve
me mor i e s and symbol s. No one si ngl e vi si on o f a pl ace is
feasi bl e. Above us, t her e is not but one sol e heaven, but
r at her t hous a nds o f t h e m ( St ei n 1987) whi ch evol ve, fall
pr ey t o change, and fi nd t hei r sour ces i n our l i ved
exper i ence. Beaut y and ugl i ness are r el at ed t o ma n, and t he
mos t di l api dat ed bui l di ng may" b e c o me super b, ri ch and
e n d o we d wi t h soul . A f eel i ng or a r ecol l ect i on can suffice
f or space, havi ng b e c o me a pl ace, t o c o me t o life. But t he
rat i onal i st will never unde r s t a nd this, f or he cannot
obj ect i vel y expl ai n an ol d ma n ' s a t t a c hme nt t o hi s squal i d
hous i ng, a j uni or hi gh school s t ude nt ' s pr ot es t graffiti, or a
fest i val i n t he mos t at r oci ous o f Cal cut t a' s sl ums. The
248 GeoJ ournal 31.3/1993
researcher' s empat hy is t he i ndi spensabl e poi nt of
depart ure in t he geogr aphy of represent at i ons, while in-
di fference and neut ral i t y are al t oget her at odds wi t h it.
Thus t he city comes to life beyond its map, st ruct ures,
physical l andmar ks and funct i ons. Due to t he i somor phi sm
bet ween t he di fferent facets of places - bet ween habitat,
social rituals, cultures, dress, etc. - t he geogr apher can
isolate t he maj or role of certain component s of places.
Huma n pasts, present s and fut ures j oi n up t her ei n to
create an at mospher e which onl y an i nner analysis can
grasp in its subtle richness. Geogr aphi c r epr esent at i on is
already a way of bei ng, a way of speaking of t he Eart h, t he
great t heat er of t he human advent ure. It is also t he
medi at or of spatial experi ence f r om an existential poi nt of
view, discovering i nt eract i ons bet ween man and his
envi r onment , t he role of places in t he realization of human
dynami cs, and so on. I n t he following sect i on I will use t he
exampl e of t he r epr esent at i on of move me nt and travel,
somewhat negl ect ed by geographers mor e gi ven to
st udyi ng sedent ary perspect i ves, to illustrate t he
pot ent i al i t i es of t he geography of represent at i ons.
Imaginary Motion
Of t he four f undament al el ement s - water, air, fire and
eart h - t he latter, consi dered as t he mot her of humanki nd
and his home f r om bi rt h to deat h, has always t r oubl ed and
i nt ri gued man. I t mus t be t raversed in order to live, and
move me nt across t he face of t he eart h has progressi vel y
signified life. Onl y upon deat h - t hat mo me n t when one
ret urns to t he eart h - does move me nt cease. Boughal i ' s
(1974) descri pt i on of traditional practices in Ber ber t ri bes
illustrates t he bi rt h-deat h-l i fe-pl ace link. There has been
but one short step made since t he earliest ant i qui t y in
associating t he eart h and move me nt wi t h t he evol ut i on of
living beings. The analysis of move me nt cannot be r educed
to t he geomet ri cal rel at i on bet ween two sets of points, as
space, durat i on, and spatial practices combi ne wi t h human
experi ence to t r ansf or m t he terrestrial surface into places,
and distance into lived travel. I f t he r epr esent at i on of a
t raj ect ory corresponds to t he organi zat i on of a series of
l andmarks, which in t urn corresponds to t opol ogi cal
concept s such as separat i on-associ at i on, order-posi t i on,
and connect edness (Bailly 1985), t hen it is even mor e
symbolic. A straight line with a t raj ect ory t owards t he
infinite, is opposed to t he oscillation or per pet ual r et ur n of
a circle; a rectilinear pat h is lost in t i me, abolishing its
reversibility. It becomes a bear er of personal meani ngs
which find t hei r origin in cultural values: let us not forget
t hat culture is a collective way of injecting order i nt o
human feelings, a collective perspect i ve which each per son
assumes personally.
Man draws f r om t he i magi nary t he means of
t ranscendi ng move me nt , to such an ext ent as to be able to
ret race t he road of life. I n taking hi msel f to be t he cent er of
t he Uni verse - t he poi nt of depart ure at t he mi ddl e of t he
circle - he mat eri al i zes his dreams of i mmort al i t y. But to
at t ai n this worl d of spout i ng wat ers in t he gardens of
plenty, he mus t t ake a l ong trip f r om t he per i pher y f r om
which he is ost raci zed t owards t he cross at t he circle' s
cent er wher e opposi t es uni t e and t ensi ons are resol ved.
Ideas of move me nt t owards bet t er places can be f ound in
l i t erat ure ( f r om t he Odyssey to t he Aenead, and in our
t i me in science fiction: in Tol ki en' s Lord of the Rings, for
exampl e) as well as in our vacat i on and r et i r ement
practices - and even in t he concent ri c circles on maps of
our cities, schemat i zed by t he ur ban ecologists of t he
Chicago school (Park and Burgess) and by novelists: "They
cross t he whol e city, f r om t he shady st reet s of t he fine
nei ghbor hoods, wi t h t hei r maj est i c resi dences and opul ent
foliage, and t he grey and noi sy resi dent i al zones of ot her
mi ddl e classes, to t he large rings of mi sery" (Al l ende 1986,
p. 69). But social ascensi on - t hat mar vel l ous j o u r n e y - goes
in t he opposi t e di rect i on f r om t he i mpover i shed cent er
t owards t he l uxury of t he out er rings.
The symbol i cs of mo v e me n t allow one to bear this
funct i oni ng, for to under t ake any move me nt , ie to go
beyond physical and social barriers, man mus t pr ove t hat
he is capable of mast er i ng places. I n Antiquity, t he
guardi ans of t he key passageways - t he precursors of our
police - t ur ned away t hose who r emai ned profane.
Nowadays t he deci pheri ng of social codes and t hei r
symbol i c pr oper t i es is still i ndi spensabl e for mobility. Wi t h
his ment al maps, man i magi nes his t raj ect ory - t hus t he
origin of t he myt h of social and spatial ascensi on into
space, t owards t hat bet t er place at t he j our ney' s end, t he
pr omi sed land of t he Hebr ews and Mor mons . " I f we t hi nk
of space as t hat which allows move me nt , t hen place is a
p a u s e . . . " (Tuan 1977).
At t i mes t he i magi nary gets t he upper hand; in my
dr eams I leave Geneva behi nd to live in a fabul ous city. I
know its l ayout , its st ruct ure or at least I i magi ne I know
t hem. Perhaps it is Pri ncet on; but apart f r om this linear
st ruct uri ng axis, it has not hi ng in c ommon wi t h t he
Pri ncet on wher e I once lived. Mai nst r eet and t he campus
have be c ome l andmar ks which allow me to move around
in a new i magi nary decor, spri nkl ed wi t h abandoned
dreams. This worl d, like t hat of t he small provincial t own of
A. Robbe- Gr i l l et ' s Gomme s , has its exact di mensi ons, its
accumul at ed i ma g e s . . , but no one can situate t he streets,
buildings and limits; t he cent eri ng works wi t hi n a maze-
like i magi nary in which t i me fades away. The classical myt h
of t he l abyri nt h can of t en be f ound in t he r epr esent at i on of
move me nt : an i t i nerary in anot her worl d, it const i t ut es a
passage which mus t be over come. It is t he place of one' s
rebirth. A j our ney in t he mi nd, in space and t i me, it
provi des access to a mar vel l ous el sewhere. The circle is its
privileged sign (as is water), for this f or m wi t hout r ef er ence
poi nt s t hwart s us in isolating easily decoded st ruct ures. I n
ori ent i ng hi msel f like Theseus or Daedal us, man attains
new knowl edge, t hus he who offers up a sacrifice in t he
myt h becomes conf ounded wi t h his vi ct i m; t hus t he
Gomr nes ' det ect i ve becomes t he criminal (Bailly and
Cost ant i no 1985). Movement , place and t i me are con-
f ounded in this existential experi ence.
GeoJ ournal 31.3/1993 249
Behind the visceral desire for initiatory movement ,
seen in the tradition of the Lacedemoni an crypt and in that
of the adventures of the Crusaders as narrated by
storytellers, many marvellous countries arise with a better
beyond. And one can understand the around-the-world
trip of the bourgeois tired of his existence, or the
adolescent' s fugue. To inhabit a place is to put down roots
and domesticate the place, but to become a man, one must
know how to leave the setting of one' s childhood and its
rules; one breaks one' s chains and goes beyond the mirror
to bring about a social and spatial departure. Dreams of
India, like those formerly of the Holy Land, bodily and
spiritual evasions, catalyze spiritual experience towards
further initiations and new guiding lines in one' s existence.
Even if the trip involves asceticism or t emporary
deprivation, it leads to a inner paradise. Travel
professionals have clearly underst ood this quest. But we
see such i mpoveri shment in the vacation catalogues
concerning the exoticism of the everyday! The functional
wins out over the symbolic, the superficial over the
interior, and the myt h collapses into the refound
functional. The hackneyed mount ai n dwellers created by
ski stations (Gudrin and Gumuchi an 1978) illustrate the
primacy of the economic over every other value; even
snow has become functional! And the vacationer from the
city finds the rhyt hm of his everyday urban existence, with
the simple addition of a new range of activities. A far cry
from the pilgrim in the Middle Ages! (Osterrieth 1985).
A Mixture of Real and Imaginary
The symbols which make places come alive are not only
those of the traveller or poet, but also those each of us
leaves in his wake. We each feed off of our era, and our
narratives and writings speak for us. Why are people thus
surprised by the mixture of real and imaginary in novelists'
representations, as well as those of cartographers? Don' t
maps reveal the substance of place valorizations? Thus
those terrestrial maps surrounded by angelic and diabolical
scenes, oceans beyond which paradisiacal worlds are
depicted. These anthologies of the marvellous do not serve
simply for warring! No more so than pedestrian maps made
of dreams about walks in marvellous l andscapes. . .
The interweaving of time and space conforms to this
logic of real and imaginary. Ancient peoples situated the
spent portions of their lives and death to the west; the east,
on the contrary, was the source of life which moved with
the sun. Beyond, at the antipodes, were the mythical
worlds, including the traces of past civilizations,
swallowed-up worlds and new Americas: dreams of
fabulous journeys.
Deliberately idealist and subjectivist, the geography of
representations draws its richness from the analysis of the
permanent mixture of real and imaginary. It would be
erroneous to believe that with cont emporary society, man
has become more mobile, or that he has lost his roots
because he lives in more and more homogeneous
environments. We have, rather, neglected to discover the
symbolics of the places of our cont emporary lives and their
poetic density. To parody G. Durand (1964), I would say that
the fundament al evil which has threatened geography is it
has minimized images and myths, accepting instead sterile
functionalist visions. In integrating spatial meaning and its
symbolics, even the most modern of places are revealed in
all their richness to those who study them. One discovers
not only subject-society-place relations, but collective
social valorizations and spatial myths as well. Each
neighborhood, each building possesses bot h symbolic and
functional characteristics, eg churches, synagogues, and
mosques - places of worship which play an ideological role
- as well as constructions localized in precise parts of the
city - on sacred sites such as hilltops dominating the urban
landscape. Each communi t y develops main principles of
location which integrate the ideology and symbolism of
places of worship. These ment al representations bring
forth the multiplicity of imaginary worlds: "thus, the
humbl est - like the ugliest - of places, takes on the prestige
of the signifier which only time can bestow upon things"
(Fauque 1974).
The pol ysemy of lived spaces, ie the superimposition of
representations, is what makes this new approach
indispensable. Regions, cities and nei ghborhoods -
constituting mirrors of our societies - are both dreams and
nightmares. The geographer must study t hem to become a
valuable interlocutor in dealing with planning technocrats
and theoreticians promot i ng devel opment from the top
down. In refusing to integrate the richness of human inner
relationships with the symbolics of places, disincarnate
geography will lose its geographical know how.
"A sons perdus leurs violons
Fond danser notre race humai ne
Sur la descente ~ reculons"
"The dying sounds of their violins
make the human race dance
backwards down the downhill stretch"
(Apollinaire, Alcools)
Towards a Theory of Spatial Experience
What is missing in the geography of representations is
the bit of rigor needed to anchor existential experience
within a logical-theoretical schema. Even if theories of
man have not det ermi ned the true proportions of will
(individual freedom) and social determinism, we can
propose - not a unifying theory - but a series of
classificatory regularities identified through research on
landscape structures (Bailly 1985). The complexity of our
relations to places, clarified by work in microgeography,
requires us to conceive of every ment al space as organized
in accordance with three aspects: structural, functional and
symbolic. The structural aspect, clearly highlighted by
Lynch, allows one to grasp the way in which environmental
250 GeoJ ournal 31.3/1993
st r uct ur es are us ed by i ndi vi dual s i n t hei r spatial pract i ces.
The f unct i onal aspect pri vi l eges t he space- t i me const r ai nt
i n expl ai ni ng pr obl e ms o f accessi bi l i t y and t he e c o n o mi c
capaci t i es o f places. The s ymbol i c aspect - far mo r e r ar el y
deal t wi t h except in t he geogr aphy o f r epr es ent at i ons -
reveal s an i mme ns e var i et y o f spatial connot at i ons , and t he
bundl e o f uni f i cat or y r el at i ons be t we e n man, soci et y and
place. Thi s t hr eef ol d di st i nct i on allows one t o cons i der
space as mo r e t han a si mpl e me di um. The link, f or exam-
pl e, be t we e n Ge ne va ' s f ount ai n, an obj ect cons t r uct ed on
lake L6man, and t hi s i nt er nat i onal t our i st t own' s i mage,
shows how a s ymbol at t ract s and b e c o me s a par t o f l i ved
exper i ence: aft er one ' s visit t o t he Mont - Bl anc br i dge,
ever y t our i st i dent i fi es t he f ount ai n wi t h t he city, wi t h
Swi t zerl and, and wi t h t he Mont - Bl anc i n t he backgr ound.
The exper i ence creat es new i nf or mat i on - a ne w l andmar k
(Bailly and Fer r i er 1986) - whi ch l eads us t o unde r s t a nd
how r epr es ent at i ons are cons t r uct ed.
Ever y place, br oke n down i nt o a set o f el ement s , is
or gani zed al ong st r uct ur i ng axes ( mai n t r ans por t at i on
axes, and physi cal axes such as rivers, val l eys, etc. )
rel at i onal axes ( i nt er sect i ons, knot s) , and l andmar ks and
r ef er ence vol ume s (be t he y nat ur al - eg mount a i ns - or
cons t r uct ed - eg t empl es) . A syst emat i c classification o f
t hese c o mp o n e n t s and an anal ysi s o f t hei r def or mat i ons
c ompa r e d wi t h Eucl i dean geomet r y, makes it possi bl e t o
grasp t he l andmar ks us ed by peopl e i n t hei r r egi ons and t o
unde r s t a nd t he t r ans f or mat i ons bor n o f t hei r pract i ces i n
t hi s space. This net wor k onl y t akes on its full meani ng,
however , whe n c ompl e t e d by a set o f f unct i onal , cul t ur al
and s ymbol i c signifiers whi ch are i nsepar abl e f r om it, ie
mar ker s whi ch i nf or m one about t he place. A pl ace,
posi t i on or geogr aphi cal expanse onl y t akes on its
meani ngs i n accor dance wi t h t he i mages ( r epr es ent at i ons )
at t r i but ed t o it. Amo n g t he si gni fyi ng el ement s , we fi nd
t he symbol i cs o f or i ent at i on and t he sacr ed char act er o f
cer t ai n pl aces. They mus t be c ompl e t e d by t he val ues
at t r i but ed t o t he l i mi t s o f t he space and t o t he l andmar ks,
whe t he r t hey be rel i gi ous, cul t ural or admi ni st r at i ve. Pl aces
are t hus concept ual i zed as si gni fyi ng me nt a l spaces,
i nt er nal i zed by t hei r i nhabi t ant s, as oppos e d t o t he
ext er nal i t y o f e nvi r onme nt s out s i de me nt a l limits. Each
pl ace t hus exi st s as a seri es o f f unct i onal pr oper t i es ( t ypes
o f activities and l i fest yl es), s ymbol i c pr oper t i es (prest i -
gi ous pl aces and cent er s) and t e mpor a l pr oper t i es (hi st o-
rical and proj ect i ve).
Ge ogr a phy mus t r econs t r uct t he c o mp o n e n t s o f t hes e
pl aces f r om t he b o t t o m up and mu s t i l l umi nat e t hei r
symbol i cs. The l andscape is concei ved o f as c o mp o s e d o f
si gns whi ch are accept ed, de c ode d and val or i zed by cert ai n
me mb e r s o f soci et y. Pl ace, havi ng t hus b e c o me r eadabl e, is
i magi nar i l y r egi st er ed ( psychol ogi cal facts, me nt a l i mages,
and so on ) - failing whi ch t her e is nei t her cent ral i t y,
mar gi nal i t y nor hi erarchy.
C o n c l u s i o n
Thi s ki nd o f anal ysi s, whi l e del i cat e owi ng t o t he
phi l osophi cal r ef l ect i on t hat it necessi t at es ( i ncl udi ng
hol i sm, a nt hr opoc e nt r i s m and p h e n o me n o l o g y ) , allows
t he geogr apher - aware o f t he r ol e o f t he symbol i cs o f our
r epr es ent at i ons about our spatial pract i ces - t o expl or e ne w
wor l ds: t hos e o f our val ues, me a ni ngs and obj ect i ves. Thus
we can gi ve up t he ol d def i ni t i on, "sci ence o f places", t o
i ni t i at e our sel ves i nt o t he links be t we e n me nt a l
r epr es ent at i ons , i nt ent i onal st r uct ur es and bundl es o f
pract i ces i n space and t i me. One o f ge ogr a phy' s obj ect i ves
- t hat o f under s t andi ng, or gani zi ng and f or es eei ng h u ma n
geogr aphi c exper i ence - j us t i f i e s t hi s r e ne we d appr oach.
St udyi ng meani ngs , h u ma n val ues and t he symbol i cs o f
pl ace, t he ge ogr a phe r r esi t uat es h u ma n bei ngs i n t he r ol e
t he y had l ost i n anal yses gui ded by f unct i onal i sm. Do e s n ' t
t hi s expl or at i on o f t he exi st ent i al f ounda t i ons o f our wor l d
t r ul y des er ve t o be cal l ed " h u ma n geogr aphy" ?
N o t e
1~ The term "geography of representations" is widely used in
francophone social science, but is not commonly employed in
English. This concept refers, according to Piaget, to the manner
in which human beings experience: how they presently perceive
something, and how their present perception is based upon an
accumulated set of experiences and memories; how they
represent this phenomenon, imagine it and value it in verbal,
written, mental or graphical form.
Re[erenees
Allende, E.: D' amour et d'ombre. Fayard, Paris 1986.
Bachelard, G.: La po6tique de l'espace. PUF, Paris 1957.
Bailly, A.: Probabilit6s subjectives et g6ographie humaine. M61anges
offerts h Frangois Gay. Laboratoire d'Analyse Spatiale, Nice 1984.
Bailly, A.: Distances et espaces: vingt ans de g6ographie des
repr6sentations. L'Espace G6ographique 3, 197-205 (1985)
Bailly, A.; Costantino, V.: Ambiance de banlieue, un parcours g6o-
litt6raire ~t travers "Les Gommes" de A. Robbe-Grillet. Actions et
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