The Spatial Operation of Social Forces

The body moving through space leaves a trace. The body at rest reaches out beyond its physical envelope to occupy and displace all else but that which it allows in. Space is altered by the presence of the body. People move through and take up physical positions in response to the physical framings of space. Spatial framings directly or indirectly organize a complex of sensory, psychological, and social factors.

The body is the starting point of all human experience. Art corroborates the central significance of the human form as the focal point of artistic intentions but also in its absence: the human response to abstraction inevitably passes through the traces of prior spatial experiences (De Stijl, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, etc.); landscape painting is often experienced through in relation to the human scale from the gezeligheit of projetions of the body into pictoral space, to the reflexive response of awe in the face of the sublime.

The human body is also the starting point of politics and power, a point brilliantly established in Elaine Scarry’s 1985 The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. She places the body and its capacity for pain at the origins of language: the primary motivation for human communication is to prevent violence and pain. Violence and warfare are the collective suspension of language and culture. One of the central tasks of culture is the negotiation of difference in the prevention of its own suspension in violence. Scarry looks at how the medical establishment have sought to understand and manage pain. She reports on the work of Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall’s “Gate Control Theory of Pain,” and  W.S. Torgerson’s “McGill Pain Questionnaire” towards the codification and qualitative description of pain. The resulting three categories of the experience of pain map almost directly onto Henri Lefebvre’s three categories of spatial experience.

Melzack, Wall, Torgerson’s three categories of experience of pain:

1. Sensory content of pain (temporal, thermal, or constrictive) [direct experience];

2. the affective content of pain [interpretive experience]; and

3. the evaluative or cognitive content of pain [imagined experience].

Henri Lefebvre’s three categories of spatial experience:

1. Spatial practice: the everyday [direct experience]

2. Presentations of space: planners, maps, verbal signs [interpretive experience]

3: Representational Spaces: imagination [imagined experience]

The central theme of Harvard University’s 2011 Cambridge Talks V (24-25 March) is “The Body in History/The Body in Space” and promises the exploration of the central question of bodies in space: “What role does the built environment play in subject formation and understandings of the body? How can we recall human agency while acknowledging the limits imposed on the body by spatial constructs?”

Bodily experience: tactile, visual, olfactory, auditory, thermal

The ability to generate a realtime digital model of the human body has been around for a few years using a special cameras and configurations.

Luke Farrar’s collaboration with Radiohead.

Recent practical applications of body cloud analysis and the larger study of social forces in space is progressing across a wide field of diverse interests from using spatial analysis of building volumes (as a surrogate for bodies) to predict economic performance of different retail locations (Adres Sevtsuk, MIT PhD dissertation) to the spatial-social interactions that contribute to speech aquisition (Deb Roy, MIT Media Lab).

This has recently been made significantly easier and more accessible byMicrosoft Kinect hacks using that system. We have the ability to map three dimensional form and location of individual bodies. The long term project of digitally modeling the physical spaces of human occupation advances apace, not only on Google Earth but now also with stereophotogrammetry and kinect modeling of interior spaces.

Italian Futurism, Muybridge, Hillier, Goffman, Holly White, snow, Jane Jacobs, Alan Jacobs, Robin Evans, Mark Jarzombek, Iwan Baan, film, Tufte, City7-City8, Ratti, GoogleEarth, C3, Gordon,

Schindler’s List

Porte Allegre 25 February 2011


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