Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Ambient Text and the Becoming Space of Writing

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Ambient Text and the Becoming Space of Writing

Article excerpt


This article explores the spatial status of written texts in the urban environments of the digital age. I suggest that part of what writing does in and for the urban environment in such context is more productively captured by understanding writing not only as a communication technology but a spatial technology as well. I propose the concept of ambient text to ground my exploration of the spatiality of writing in the observational context of a busy New York City street. I then use Manuel Castells' distinction between the space of places and the space of flows as a useful heuristic to explore theoretically the contribution of writing to contemporary urban social spatiality in the sociotechnical context of the digital age. I argue that writing takes up new spatial roles and can be thought of as an infrastructure that helps the space of places and the space of flows "hook up." The general argument is that our relationship to written texts is being reconfigured by spatial dynamics for which texts in turn do important work. The idea that texts directly produce social space (the becoming space of writing) leads to an incremental, additive view of social space, which is briefly discussed.


Ambient text, social space, space of flows, spatiality, materiality, linguistic landscape


The idea that writing involves a kind of "spacing" is not new (Bolter, 2001; De Certeau, 1984; Derrida, 1997; Innis, 2007; McLuhan, 1962; Ong, 1982). Writing is frequently understood in social theory as involving a transformation of speech (in time) to visible image (in space). However, the space evoked is rarely theorized; instead it is simply assumed to be either the visible surface where the words are written (stone, paper, screen); a blank space that writing creates for itself, or an unqualified space in the abstract (a sort of openness in general). In this article, I suggest that it might be useful to consider the idea that the space in which writing does its spacing is, literally, social space; it is in social space that writing ultimately occurs and counts. If, as Lefebvre (1991) suggests, "(social) space is a (social) product" (p. 26) and "every society [...] produces space, its own space" (p. 31), then writing is one of the means by which society (directly, I suggest) produces such space. The resulting picture, however, as discussed in the last section, is one that involves not only integration and coherence (its own space) but also dispersal and expansion.

I start from the premise that although writing is very obviously related to language, spatially it counts very differently from speech. Because my focus is primarily on the spatiality of writing and its contribution to the urban environment, I make a strong methodological distinction between written and spoken language. In this sense, although broadly related and perhaps similarly inspired by an interest in "wordy geographies" (Philo, 2011), the work presented here is different from work that does not focus on writing specifically, including work on the "geographies of talk" and conversation analysis (Laurier, 1998, 2010), historical work on the geographies of "lost words and lost worlds" (Pred, 1990), and discursive approaches to the place of "words" in geography (Philo, 2011). This work is typically concerned with the meaning of specific utterances in context in a way that the present treatment is not. In my treatment, the meaning of a piece of text is, for the time being, completely bracketed out, in an effort to bring the spatiality of written texts in general into greater focus. The approach presented here, in a sense, is located somewhere between the "wordy geographies" approach and perhaps more traditional work highlighting the contribution of writing to the constitution and integration of society (Giddens, 1984: 182, 201), such as Jack Goody's (1986, 2000) work on "the logic of writing and the organization of society" and Benedict Anderson's (1991) analysis of the relationship between "print capitalism" and the emergence of the imagined communities of modern nationhood. …

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