... what is a house but a bigger skin, and a neighborhood map but the world’s skin ever expanding?
Take topological space as a model of being
1From the Structure of Behavior to The Visible and the Invisible Merleau-Ponty’s interrogation of existence was on the way to think beyond linear temporal causality and a simple oppositional dialectic. His affinity for structuralism and Gestalt psychology opened a way of thinking that focused on complexity, relationality, and difference within structural wholes – all hallmarks of Merleau-Ponty’s particular form of structuralist thinking. However, they also mark an implicit turn toward spatial thinking, and in the The Visible and the Invisible he challenged himself explicitly to “take topological space as a model of being” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 210). In this paper, I want to trace the spatial, topological turn in his late work and pursue the radical shift in epistemological metaphor that accompanies it. I hope to show that Merleau-Ponty’s particular version of structuralism, which grew out of a deep engagement with Gestalt psychology, introduces a form of topological systems thinking that runs through Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy from his first work to his last. Topological thinking makes it possible for Merleau-Ponty’s interrogation to think through behavior and introduce the “form” or “structure” of the organisms’ meaningful milieu (1983); to think through perception as an existential field phenomenon (2012); and to think being in terms of Gestalt and complexity by assuming an ontological perspective beyond the chronological perspective of human consciousness (1968). Merleau-Ponty’s topological turn indicates a turning away from the classical philosophy of consciousness, based on linear temporality, toward a philosophy that thinks from the perspective of complex spatial (topological) networks. His flesh-ontology as the application of topological or spatial concepts to the project of phenomenology leads philosophy necessarily beyond consciousness and the body – without abandoning them.
2The generativity of Merleau-Ponty’s method of philosophical thinking can be applied to very concrete phenomena in psychology and the social sciences. A the end of this essay, I will briefly interrogate the phenomenon of vacant lots in urban neighborhoods through the tools of the topological-ontological method that Merleau-Ponty sketches out in The Visible and the Invisible, and show that this method is useful for describing and understanding complex, situated, spatial phenomena.
3Before proceeding, I want to give a twofold disclaimer about the title of this paper. First, the term ‘spatial turn’ was coined by Edward Soja (1989) decades after Merleau-Ponty’s death, and whatever contribution Merleau-Ponty can make to this field of inquiry is indirect and has to be reconstructed. Second, in most of Merleau-Ponty’s late work the explicit term ‘space’ appears in conjunction with the term ‘time’, i.e. as ‘space and time’. Time, however, is thought through its situated inherence in the simultaneity of space, for “time is bound to the present through all its fibers, and, through the present, to the simultaneous” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 46). Spatial, topological metaphors are the primary tropes that organize and inspire Merleau-Ponty’s ontological thinking: milieu, field, simultaneity, deep present, vertical being, universal dimensionality, chiasm.
4The “spatial turn” in the social sciences traces its origin back to Foucault’s critique of the structure of Western thinking as bound to a chronocentric epistemology, which favors time over space:
The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis, and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world. (…) The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein. One could perhaps say that certain ideological conflicts animating present-day polemics oppose the pious descendants of time and the determined inhabitants of space. Structuralism, or at least what is grouped under this slightly too general name, is the effort to establish, between elements that could have been connected on a temporal axis, an ensemble of relations that makes them appear as juxtaposed, set off against one another, implicated by each other—that makes them appear, in short, as a sort of configuration (Foucault 1986, 22).
5Social scientists like Edward Soja (1989) frame the difference between a temporal and spatial epistemology as the difference between history and geography. They contrast the chronographic way of thinking (Foucault’s “pious descendants of time”), which focuses on history as the temporal causality that inevitably leads to an affirmation of today’s socio-political reality, and the liberatory focus on space, complexity, and the material, place-related exercise of power. Soja points out that critical social thinking about space hinges around three principles:
- The ontological spatiality of being, which foregrounds space over time and social dynamics as a dimension of human experience: “we are all spatial as well as social and temporal beings”;
- The social production of spatiality, which understands spatial forms as psychological and political realities: “space is socially produced and can therefore be socially changed”;
- The socio-spatial dialectic: spatial arrangement and distribution affects individual and communal life: “the spatial shapes the social as much as the social shapes the spatial” Soja (2009, 2).
6The foregrounding of spatiality leads the “determined inhabitants of space” (as Foucault calls them above) to understand the spaces they inhabit as politically constructed and contested. Here is a personal example that illustrates the complex interrelation between the socio-political and spatial meanings and uses of place. A few months ago, I attended a neighborhood meeting about developing a neglected park in the predominantly African American Beltzhoover neighborhood in Pittsburgh, which is on the verge of gentrification. During the discussion of the re-development plan for the park an older community member spoke up and said: “If you make it too beautiful, they’ll take it away from us”. His remark felt very poignant because it had never occurred to me as a privileged white woman that beauty in the places of the oppressed makes it more likely that they will be taken away. Place, in this black man’s experience, is not neutral, and it can become the site of racist and capitalist oppression and territorial violence. At the end of this essay I will return to another contested phenomenon in this neighborhood, “vacant lots”, i.e. empty, abandoned places along the public thoroughfares, whose ownership status is often in question. For Soja, “Spatial (in)justice refers to an intentional and focused emphasis on the spatial or geographical aspects of justice and injustice. As a starting point, this involves the fair and equitable distribution in space of socially valued resources and the opportunities to use them” (Ibid., 2). What is at stake in examining the topological turn in Merleau-Ponty as a ‘spatial turn’ is the vista of an ethics that is based in interdependence and difference, wholeness and divergence, presence and absence – but which maintains at its core the situatedness of human experience.
7Merleau-Ponty’s relationship to structuralism and his structuralist project have been well established (Edie 1971, Embree 1980, Schmidt 1985, Waldenfels 1980, Stawarska 2015). As Waldenfels points out, Merleau-Ponty was the first of the French philosophers to take up the structural linguistics of Saussure and build a bridge between Gestalt psychology and structuralism. “Here we can see how closely phenomenology and structuralism interlocked before the structuralist vogue opened up gulfs between the two ways of thinking. Merleau-Ponty increasingly transforms his existential phenomenology into a structural phenomenology” (Waldenfels 1999, 286). The longtime friendship with the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Straus and their mutual influence was honored by both through mutual publications and dedications (Merleau-Ponty 1964c, Levi-Strauss 1966). While the linguistic and anthropological structuralists labored to discover the abstract, algorithm-like structural laws that could be applied to all myths and all languages, Merleau-Ponty’s structuralism maintained the phenomenological commitment to meaning, signification, and sense, and engaged in a process of inquiry that remained connected to the lived world and situated human experience. Structuralism seemed to offer Merleau-Ponty a set of tools in his struggle against the subjectivism of a consciousness centered phenomenology. As Schmidt has pointed out succinctly: “He was faced with the task of taming an excessively subjectivist theory with a knowledge of the opacity and density of the world of structures” (Schmidt 1985, 166).
8Merleau-Ponty’s hesitancy in fully embracing structuralism and structuralist methods despite a deep interest in the structural analyses found in Levi-Strauss’ and Saussure’s works might lie in the development of his “structuralist” work from a “structuralist” tradition that was not part of mainstream French culture in the early 20th century: the movement of morphological thinking in biology and anthropology that is rooted in German Naturphilosophie. Flack (2016) has argued that we have to widen our understanding of structuralism beyond the rather rationalistic form it assumed in mid-century French thinking, and include the contributions and variations it took on in Eastern and central Europe. He also points out its roots in German 19th century philosophy as it moves through Shelling, Hegel, Humboldt, Brentano, and Husserl to Gestalt psychology. One of Merleau-Ponty’s entries into this German structuralist thinking came through Aaron Gurwitsch, who was a student of Stumpf and Husserl and a close friend and colleague of the Gestalt psychologists Gelb and Goldstein in Frankfurt before he became a lecturer at the Sorbonne in 1933, where all four of his courses were attended by the young Merleau-Ponty (Toadvine 2001). Gurwitsch (1964) introduced Merleau-Ponty to Husserl and Gestalt psychology, and his influence is clearly apparent in the discussions of Gestalt psychology in The Structure of Behavior (1983) and the lengthy analyses of psychopathologies of perception in Phenomenology of Perception (1962).
9Petitot, in a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Levi-Strauss, also suggests “another itinerary” for the genealogy of structuralism that is not tied into the mathematical, algebraical, logicistic structuralism which is commonly seen as the origin of French structuralism:
According to conventional wisdom, structuralism is of formalist, logicist and linguistic descent and should be understood as the application to certain human sciences of a static, algebraic and combinatory concept of structure which, on the most favourable view, harks back to the great founders of mathematical ‘structuralism’ Hilbert and Bourbaki. There exists, however, an alternative, essentially different way of situating it — ‘another itinerary’, as Lévi-Strauss puts it — naturalist rather than formalist, where structures are treated as dynamical forms in development (‘growth and form’), as morphodynamically (self-) organized and (self-)regulating wholes, the term ‘morphodynamics’ refering here to dynamical theories of natural forms. This ‘other’ tradition is much older and deeper than the formalist perspective, (Petitot 2009, 276).
10This other itinerary, which is “naturalist rather than formalist” has its origin in the morphological work of Goethe and its influence on 19th century philosophers and biologists alike. Petitot quotes Levi-Strauss himself, who points out when asked where he found the idea of “transformation” that it can be traced back to the botany of Goethe and its understanding of dynamic, transformational wholes. It goes beyond the confines of this paper to explore the Goethean roots of European structuralism in depth (see Schneider 1979), but I want to point out that Goethean morphology itself has its origins in Neoplatonism, and through Goethe’s influence certain Neoplatonist and hermetic themes, methods, and sensibilities are passed down to the following generations of thinkers and scientists who attempted to understand nature (MacLennan 2007, Bortoft 1996).Implicit was an ideal of science that appreciated quality over quantity, dynamics over mechanics, complexity over causality, a “science that operated intuitively, synthetically and anti-mathematically and viewed nature holistically, organismically and as the product not of atoms but of forces” (Rehbock 1990, 157). It tried to find unity in nature, understood the observer as part of the scientific process, and attempted to present its findings in aesthetically pleasing, poetic descriptions. Goethean morphology is one of the most interesting (and often erased) contributions to philosophy and biology, and it is surprising to find that such varying thinkers as Schelling, Hegel, Dilthey, Adorno, Benjamin, Wittgenstein, and Cassirer (see Maatsch 2014), biologists like Portman and Uexküll, and humanities scholars like Propp and Eliade felt indebted to and were influenced by Goethean morphology (see Harrington 1996, Smith 2000). Merleau-Ponty’s affinity to structuralism can be traced back to this tradition via Gestalt psychology and its roots in Brentano (Heinämaa 2009), and his early readings of the naturalists Buytendijk, and Uexküll which influenced The Structure of Behavior. It precedes his later integration of the more formalist idiom of Saussure and structural linguistics.
11If we return to Foucault’s phrase quoted above, structuralism is defined as “the effort to establish, between elements that could have been connected on a temporal axis, an ensemble of relations that makes them appear as juxtaposed, set off against one another, implicated by each other—that makes them appear, in short, as a sort of configuration (Foucault 1986, 22). From The Structure of Behavior, through the Phenomenology of Perception, to The Visible and the Invisible and various writings on aesthetics, Merleau-Ponty attempted to understand the “ensemble of relations”, the “configurations” of the perceived world. His language was influenced by phenomenology and Gestalt psychology and their roots in German idealism, as we saw above: “configuration” was called “forme,” “structure,” or “Gestalt” (1983), later “horizon,” “figure/ground” (2009), and then “field” (1968) and “milieu” (2003). He conceived topological space as an alternative to the linear, positivist “space without transcendence” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 210) of Euclidean geometry. In Merleau-Ponty’s ontology the philosophy of structure culminates in a radically topological interrogation. Topological space is “a milieu in which are circumscribed relations of proximity, of envelopment” and it “is the image of a being that, like Klee’s touches of color, is at the same time older than everything and ‘of the first day’”; it always maintains a “perpetual residue” that is a hallmark of the irreducible “wild or brute being,” which continually messes up the artificialism of ontologies based on intellectualism and positivism (Ibid., 210-11).
12In the Phenomenology of Perception the Gestalt psychologists’ distinction between figure and ground became a major theme of reflection and a heuristic device for examining the relationship between the perspective of the perceiver and the totality of the world. The image of figure/ground is a spatial metaphor that describes the lateral, horizontal configuration of the perceptual field and its dynamics. To think in terms of figure/ground is an exercise in spatial thinking according to Foucault’s criteria above. While the Phenomenology of Perception developed a phenomenology of consciousness from the perspective of the figure who finds the ground and its shifting appearances arrayed in a horizon around it, Merleau-Ponty was eventually dissatisfied with this project because it maintained the perspective of the subjective perceiver, a “mythology of a self-consciousness to which the word ‘consciousness’ would refer” (Ibid., 171).
13The call to “take topological space as a model of being” (Ibid., 210) announces the radical shift away from consciousness as the privileged center toward a radical spatial, topological thinking of the structurality of structure beyond the center, and act which Derrida refers to as an event of “rupture” which opens up a different way of thinking and allows for the freeplay of structural configurations to actualize themselves. But Derrida also recognized how fraught this task is: “the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself” (Derrida 1993, 223).
14Merleau-Ponty developed a style of philosophical inquiry and a language appropriate to a description of interactive, relational forms that was no longer centered on self-consciousness and the act of perception. We shift from a psychologically anchored phenomenology of perception to an ontology of being, with being understood as the total play of presences and absences that form the world. He invented the concept of the flesh to think the unthinkable itself, which is “a structure lacking any center,” as Derrida said, and to name what “has no name in any philosophy”, as he said himself (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 147). The flesh evokes the structural bond between perceiver and perceived, organism and environment, consciousness and world from a perspective otherwise than the center: we are already in being and of being. The concepts of flesh and chiasm fit into what Foucault called “the epoch of the simultaneous” and the continuous reversible relationship between organism and milieu: “the idea of chiasm, that is: every relation with being is simultaneously a taking and a being taken, the hold is held, it is inscribed and inscribed in the same being that it takes hold of” (Ibid., 266).
15The consequence of this kind of radical topological understanding of the structural intertwining of body, consciousness, and world—which suddenly becomes thinkable through the concept of the chiasm—is a shift from a psychology of consciousness to an ontology of being, where being designates the totality in which all the divergent manifestations of the world take up their place. This shift in perspective can be illustrated in Merleau-Ponty’s re-conceptualization of experience from an ontological perspective. Experience is not “an absolute flux of singular Erlebnisse” (Ibid., 171), and not the temporal and individual event of the traditional theories of consciousness. Experience is an event in a field of relationships and configurations with their specific topology. A red dress, for example, appears in experience only in relation to other objects and colors in the perceptual field, and its identity exists as a nodal point in a complex web of visual (and other perceptual) events. When an object appears “there are fields and a field of fields, with a style and a typicality” (Ibid., 171), with some elements in the foreground, some in the background, some visible, and some invisible. The perceiver and the perceived exist in a transcendent field (Ibid., 171), i.e. a totality which surpasses every individual manifestation and yet depends on them. And the center of the configuration is not so much a substance, but a style.
16The concept of the center as a style within a field designated for Merleau-Ponty “a certain manner of managing the domain of space and time over which it has competency, of pronouncing, of articulating that domain, of radiating about a wholly virtual center – in short a certain manner of being, in the active sense, a certain Wesen, in the sense that, says Heidegger, this word has when it is used as a verb” (Ibid., 114-15). Consciousness, as well as the complexity of the world are opaque: the transcendence of the world is always beyond the immediately perceived event, and consciousness has an anonymous dimension and a lacunary structure which make self-transparency and absolute knowledge impossible. Radical spatial thinking through the topological simultaneity of the world leads away from a substantialist, reified notion of being to describing the appearances of a particular being through its active impact on the field. Merleau-Ponty uses the active verb form of Wesen: “es west” – which means something like “it is doing its being there”.
17From Merleau-Ponty’s radical ontological perspective, consciousness has no longer the central function of ordering or producing the perceptual world (as a Kantian subject would), but is only one “pivot” or “hinge” (Ibid., 224) within the field of being as a whole. We shift from self-consciousness to consciousness as a field event – a shift that requires a new language to make it thinkable: “écart”, “divergence”, “reversibility”, “passivity”, “dehiscence”, “diacritical”, “hyperdialectic”. Merleau-Ponty invents concepts that try to grasp the features of whole perceptual systems and the rules that govern them. Spatial metaphors become heuristic devices for developing appropriate ontological concepts: we have words such as ‘architecture’, ‘tiers’, ‘emplacement’, ‘joints’, ‘domains’, ‘axes’, ‘pivots’, ‘milieus’, ‘envelopment’:
Being no longer being before me, but surrounding me and in a sense traversing me, and my vision of being not forming itself from elsewhere, but from the midst of Being — the alleged facts, the spatio-temporal individuals, are from the first mounted on the axes, the pivots, the dimensions, the generality of my body, and the ideas are therefore already encrusted in its joints. There is no emplacement of space and time that would not be a variant of the others, as they are of it; there is no individual that would not be the representative of a species or of a family of beings, would not have, would not be a certain style, a certain manner of managing the domain of space and time over which it has competency. (Ibid., 114-115).
18Merleau-Ponty made some tentative steps toward an interrogative method that would help us describe and understand complex field beings and how they transform over time through a hyperdialectic method that “envisages without restriction the plurality of the relationships and what has been called ambiguity” (Ibid., 94). In a previous project, I drew out some of the implicit hyperdialectic principles which Merleau-Ponty identified through the phenomenology of the red dress (Simms 2017). Below I summarize some of these principles that govern field phenomena, i.e. phenomena as they are understood from the topological perspective, followed by a brief sketch of an application of this kind of thinking to the political and social justice dimension of lived space. I hope to illustrate that the principles derived from a topological, chiasmic phenomenology can be very productive for a phenomenological analysis of complex social experiences which require an interrogation into the larger, systemic, impersonal structures that are the horizon of individually situated experiences.
- Field Phenomena appear in relation to a transcendent field or ground – there is always more that could appear.
- A particular phenomenon is the “pivot” or “central hinge” around which a system is distributed and which is open to its transcendent field. Despite this openness, it is “a bound and not a free possibility” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 205).
- The phenomenal field has a complex change structure that does not follow a linear causality, but small changes in other, even distant parts of the field impact what appears at the pivot.
- Field phenomena are structured through difference and are marked by a divergent, diacritical positionality within a web of relationships.
- Field Phenomena have a particular style with which they take up their place in the configuration.
- Field phenomena are open to the freeplay of possibility and the advent of the unexpected – hope that a different kind of future is possible.
19As a social scientist, I have worked for more than a decade in developing urban greenspaces, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods. One phenomenon I have researched are abandoned greenspaces in cities, and vacant lots in African American neighborhoods. I think that Merleau-Ponty’s hyperdialectic principles are a productive way to approach complex spatio-social phenomena. In the following I suggest that we think of vacant lots as field phenomena and describe them according to Merleau-Ponty’s hyperdialectic principles. This leads to a set of topological hermeneutic instructions or questions, which direct our gaze to the particular dynamics of the field in which a phenomenon is experienced. It will be followed by a brief thought experiment which applies topological hermeneutic rules to the phenomenon of vacant city lots.
- The Ground. Field phenomena appear in relation to a transcendent field or ground – there is always more that could appear. Guiding question: What is the ground of the phenomenon?
- Boundedness and Openness. A particular phenomenon is the “pivot” or “central hinge” around which a system is distributed and which is open to its transcendent field. Despite this openness, it is a bound and not a free possibility. Guiding questions: What is the particular relational field? What binds? Where are the openings for free possibility?
- Homeopathic Change: The phenomenal field has a complex change structure that does not follow a linear causality, but small changes in other, even distant parts of the field impact what appears at the pivot. Guiding questions: Where are the “homeopathic” pressure points in a system? How many have to be activated to change the system?
- Identity and Difference. Field phenomena are structured through difference and are marked by a divergent, diacritical positionality within a web of relationships. Guiding questions: How is identity held in and created by the field? How are identity and difference related to each other?
- Style. Field phenomena have a particular style with which they take up their place in the configuration. Guiding questions: Describe the style as it radiates through its field. How does it manage “the domain of space and time over which it has competency”?
- Freeplay. Field phenomena are open to the freeplay of possibility and the advent of the unexpected – hope that a different kind of future is possible. Guiding questions: What is latent or distantly intimated and could be brought into relationship and focus? What other possible futures announce themselves?
Thought experiment: the ground of vacant lots
20Vacant lots appear in the larger context of an urban neighborhood space that has been decimated and dispirited by public disinvestment and economic decline. As neighborhood places have been abandoned, their presence testifies to a political history, as well as to historical and contemporary use practices that are personal as well as systemic. The history of racist practices of systemic redlining and disinvestment in African American neighborhoods becomes situated and visible in abandoned businesses and vacant public buildings, such as closed schools and the boarded up windows of abandoned churches and businesses. Their presence impacts the atmosphere of the whole public space and the culture of the people living there. In a recent photovoice exercise I asked African American high school students to photograph what they liked and did not like about their neighborhood. Images of vacant lots and abandoned buildings predominated and were described as “creepy and sad” “seem to stay that way forever”, and “we don’t know who is in there”. Their creepy and sad atmosphere radiates out over the streets they front and add a dimension of uncanniness, threat, and stagnation to the neighborhood. As visible traces of the past presence of human activity, vacant lots are markers of meaning and depth for those who remember what was there: the ghost of other times -- the simultaneity of history.
Thought experiment: boundedness and openness of vacant lots
21Vacant lots are empty land that is distributed in small parcels throughout an urban landscape. Like missing teeth, vacant lots are gaps in a row of houses that front public thoroughfares and are part of the Strassenbild /streetscape of a neighborhood. They are bound by their small size, which makes them hard to reuse or combine or repurpose, and by legal ownership structures and local zoning laws which restrict their use. They are also bound by the customs of the neighborhood, which often treats them as if they were invisible. If they are strewn with garbage, it indicates that the neighbors do not feel that the land is theirs in order to exercise their personal and ethical responsibility for the place. Sometimes neighbors decide to assume the openness and possibility inherent in these places: they clean up and mow empty lots or start urban gardens and farms and enhance them as an act of care for the spaces of the commons, even though ownership is contested and this kind of care might be prosecuted as illegal trespass.
Thought experiment: the homeopathic pressure points of vacant lots
22In order for change to happen, neighborhood organizational structures have to be activated so that neighborhood conversations around the use of public places can be facilitated. Places need advocates, and one principle of local activism is that political disorganization on the local level means also that the places of the local commons (streets, plazas, house frontages, parks, parking lots, sidewalks, street trees, scenery) are fragmented and isolated. When they become invisible and ignored, they will be open to misuse. When neighborhood groups organize, they can advocate for the care of neighborhood spaces that impact the public life of their commons. The urban gardening and farming movement is an attempt to reuse vacant lots and at the same time improve the food situation in poor urban neighborhoods. Urban gardens and farms can be some of the many small initiatives that flip the system. Small grassroots initiatives that have local buy-in have potentially great impact in education and advocacy for a neighborhood. With respect to empty lots, neighborhood groups can advocate on the level of city government in order to change farming ordinances, or they can influence neighborhood development practices through changing the financial structure of housing and property loans. Because they are tied to the on-the-ground, every-day place experiences and the public life of particular places, they can help resolve ownership arguments with the city and initiate new practices that reclaim the neighborhood common spaces.
Thought experiment: difference and identity of vacant lots
23Vacant lots can be understood in relation to non-vacant lots. A brief phenomenology of dwelling can show the difference between the built and the abandoned lot. When a property is abandoned, the structure of human inhabitation has been relinquished and over time past place practices fade and only traces of it remain. The presence of vacant places in black neighborhoods, often the result of violence, poverty, or loss of population, means something different from vacant lots in affluent white suburbs: while empty spaces in inner city neighborhoods are an indicator of financial disinvestment and neglect by public officials, empty spaces in affluent white neighborhoods are a prized canvas for re-development and financial gain. Racism and poverty have traditionally been markers of overdetermined difference in US public life and are one of the root contributors to the appearance of vacant lots. Segregation of neighborhoods and schools, disinvestment of local infrastructure by city officials, red-lining by banks who do not provide home loans: these are racist practices which assume that racial difference is insurmountable, and they have a long-term impact on the health and identity of a neighborhood commons. Vacant lots become focal as “other” in the political process: through naming them ‘blighted’ they structure the whole neighborhood field and imply that the neighborhood is infected with some kind of virus. In consequence we have practices such as ‘blight removal’ where political and economic entities swoop in with surgical precision and take over the land with complete disregard for the cultural neighborhood field (Thompson Fullilove 2004).
24 In the everyday life of pedestrians, vacant lots become often invisible to conscious awareness, but they have a latent impact on the aesthetics of the whole place and the comfort and safety of adults and children as they use public places. Creepy, sad, and dejected places do not invite relaxation and enjoyment. Vacant urban lots are often experienced as places of grief over the loss and destruction of the shared life with neighbors and friends who used to live there, and of a communal past that has been resigned to history. However, through murals and graffiti the loss of a past identity and the reclaiming of a present identity finds its empty canvas on the walls of vacant spaces, and with it the potential of individual creativity and communal recovery.
Thought experiment: the style of vacant lots
25Vacant lots are urban places which were once structured for human use, but are now left fallow and mostly untouched by human hands. Humans have relinquished responsibility for the care of these spaces, and they have become places of un-dwelling. Nature takers over, and plants overgrow the remnants of walls and foundations, revealing how quickly the traces of human activity can be swallowed up when places are neglected or abandoned. An atmosphere of otherness emanates from empty lots and vacant buildings because wind and rain and the unstoppable power of weeds reveal an intentionality that is not human: nature does its own thing. Neglected places invite trash and destruction and often have an uncanny vibe. Children I worked with have often taken this as a sign that nobody cares for the neighborhood place -- and for them. The style of un-dwelling which radiates around vacant lots is not experienced as a series of little nature preserves, but indicates a rupture in the familiar neighborhood scape and a dissolution of the urban community that used to surround its children with safety and opportunity.
Thought experiment: vacant lots and the future
26If we change the habitual perspective and accept the dissolution of human structures in vacant lots, it becomes suddenly possible to truly observe what these places are and what they possibly can be in the neighborhood fabric. New land-uses (besides residential development) can be imagined, and vacant lots can be re-dwelled in many different ways and responsive to community needs. They can potentially become small parks, gardens, playgrounds, art installations, memorials – to name just a few. The community imagination can be activated through a close engagement and communication with these places through walk-throughs, phenomenological description of place and context, and re-connection with past traditions through neighborhood stories, photographs, and artefacts. The mythological topography and the depth dimension of place can be awakened, and empty lots can be reintegrated as a living, connected part into the whole of the neighborhood commons.
27These brief applications of Merleau-Ponty’s chiasmic ontology and hyperdialectic method are incomplete and very sketchy, but perhaps they can illustrate how powerful a method can be which directs us to investigate the ground, boundedness and openness, homeopathic change, identity and difference, style, and possibility for freeplay, while it maintains a faithful attention to the situatedness of the phenomenon. The kind of spatial justice and the inherent ethics which flows out of a topological phenomenology appreciates complexity and the necessity of difference within a Gestalt/ structure: identity is not held by an individual part, but by the location within the larger field and the differentiation of elements within it. Intentionality is not located only in the human, but in the larger semiotic field, which includes historical and political objects as well as the creative force of nature. It moves us beyond the ever-popular focus on embodiment, which is the legacy of Phenomenology of Perception, and opens up a broader vista for understanding situated phenomena within their larger, constituting context.
28By borrowing and developing the theoretical resources related to topology in Merleau-Ponty’s later writings and lectures, we are better equipped to address the complex issues of injustice, racism, and poverty, as was initially emphasized by Foucault, Soja and others (Foucault 1986, Lefebvre 1974, Soja 1989). Merleau-Ponty’s topological thinking brings an existential sensibility for the depth dimension of how injustice, racism, and poverty are lived by communities of people in particular places, and it demonstrates a phenomenological method which brackets habitual ways of framing phenomena and is committed to look again at ‘the things themselves’ in all their complex appearance. As a phenomenologist, I feel called to join the determined inhabitants of space in the practices of spatial justice as it is lived on the ground in my cities, in my neighborhoods, by my friends.