Edward Casey's unhelpful duality

click on images for full-size:

Almost wilderness, a scene in the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State

A place in Casey's sense: the garden of an estate along the Pacific coast in Oregon

A site in Caseys sense: new development along the Pacific coast in Oregon'

Edward Casey offers in his books delicate phenomenological descriptions of the process of being in place, then critiques of places that do not express that process of inhabitation fully enough. While I agree that we should create places that allow for a more self-conscious process of inhabitation, I think that Casey's mode of criticism is too blunt and dualistic. They exemplify the kinds of difficulties that overly totalizing and dualistic critiques encounter.

Casey's overall idea is that place is not simple location in uniform geometrical space, but concrete bodily locatedness. Place is qualitative, relational and textured, enclosing and defining. The opening of place happens in the intertwining of nature and the lived body.

In his first book on place (Casey 1993) Casey analyzes in detail how we are in place and then criticizes contemporary locales as non-places. He writes enlightening descriptions of the dimensions of lived spatiality. For instance, see his discussion of the primacy of the perception of depth (Casey 1993, 67ff). He works from Merleau-Ponty and Husserl, but extends their ideas, and critiques Heidegger, whom he accuses of an undue modern emphasis on time at the expense of place.

Casey describes necessary conditions for the experience of place, in his sense of the term. But his conditions are not sufficient for the experience of place as I mean the term, since he does not give much consideration to social roles and grammars. Place as I mean the term includes both less than Casey's term (it would not include some of the natural locales he describes) and more than Casey's term (what he describes as non-places are places in my sense of the term). The result is that his conditions are not sufficient to support the social criticism that he wishes to base on them.

Indeed, Casey is doing social criticism, not just phenomenology. Besides his discussion of the necessary conditions of place, Casey wants to condemn modern placeless cities, tracts, malls, institutions, and suburban strips.

For instance, he describes a drive south along I-91 from central Massachusetts. On this journey he first sees the forested top of Mount Holyoke, on which there is restaurant "that fits and embellishes the landscape." Then he drives along the Connecticut river, where a large water tower is an "excrescence upon the land . . . not so much unsightly as vastly out of scale." This disproportion lacks "the elegant equilibrium" of the "implacement of the mountaintop restaurant." Then he passes road construction where "the incursion of the cultural has acted to eliminate any effective access to the natural world" and there is such disruption of the land that "landscape has become antiscape." Arriving in Hartford, "I find myself in a complex scene of modern and postmodern buildings. These buildings are so closely packed together than not even the barest trace of open land remains. . . . The cityscape has taken over the landscape completely. In the cityscape I witness the antipode of an unassailed wildscape, since nothing in what was once wilderness has here been untouched." On this journey "the landscape itself became, if not lifeless, featureless. . . . The open and accommodating places in the land gave way with frightening rapidity to straitened sites for the massive storage of water or for efficient transportation, and finally to literal building sites in downtown Hartford" (Casey 1993, 256-58).

t is curious that Hartford is described with no sense of the city as an inhabited place with its own social grammar and rituals. Also we should remember the Connecticut River valley has not been wilderness for centuries, and its landscape was worked over by the native Americans for millenia. But above all there is the curious dualism of his journey. Presumably beehives in the forest are part of the wilderness, and beaver dams that flood the woods count as part of nature, but humans produce cities that are an excrescence. Casey is working with certain preferences about what kind of nature he wants to see, preferences that he thinks to derive from the necessary conditions of our embodiment. But they are particular aesthetic transcriptions of these conditions, together with an implicit ideal of harmony and wholeness that Darwinian nature does not observe.

The core of Casey's social criticism is found in the notion of "site." Le Corbusier said that "the site must be cleared" before construction of a modern building. Casey takes this as emblematic of a subordination of place to geometry and control. Site is what we get when place has been "expropriated," taken out of its properness, its ownness, its particularity. True place is the event of envelopment itself" (Casey 1997, 339). It has "placial properties that evade the parameters of distance and position, indeed of sheer relation" (Casey 1997, 334). True places are qualitative and directional; they open out, they are stubbornly particular.

"By [site] I here mean the leveled-down, emptied-out, planiform residuum of place and space eviscerated of their actual and virtual powers and forced to fit the requirements of institutions that demand certain very particular forms of building" (Casey 1997, 183).

Site is the "indifferent spaces of housing developments and shopping centers and superhighways' (Casey 1993, 275). Site might as well be underground, for all its connection with elsewhere (Casey 1993, 260). Site empties our experience of place down to a level where it will encourage promethean building rather than natural corporal movement (Casey 1993, 259).

Site is extrinsic to the thing sited, "indifferent to all that matters in situation" (Casey 1997, 178), offering no influence from or on an occupant. "Site does not situate. . . . Place . . . situates, and it does so richly and diversely. It locates things in regions whose most complete expression is neither geometric nor cartographic" (Casey 1997, 201). "Once leveled and freed of all its innate particular concreteness, site is available for calculable control. To make place calculable is to transform it into site" (Casey 1997, 201). Site converts the concrete specificity of a particular place into the "generalized function" of being a site (Casey 1997, 185).

Casey talks about how real places offer possible immersion in their life, whereas modern sites offer only positions with no dimensionality (Casey 1993, 275-76). The loss of depth in pure geometrized space, is equated to the loss of depth in a historyless nature less locale of modern building. But this is an illicit move. Hartford does have possibilities for immersion; ask its inhabitants. There may not be enough, but that is not to say there are none. Central Hartford, and malls, and tract housing, all have the lived bodies and perceptual depth that Casey takes to be key to implacement.

The world of site is alienating. We lose that sense of place that "anchors us" (Casey 1997, 186), so we feel the void of directionless life. In that void, "site's defining features of homogeneity, planiformity, monolinearity, and seriality . . . paper over the abyss" (Casey 1997, 186).

You might think that by combining this discussion of locales that we inhabit that are nonetheless sites, with the fact that we inhabit with our lived bodies, Casey would say that sites are a particular yet alienating sort of place. But he is ambivalent on this issue. Sometimes site is non-place: "Site is the very undoing of place" (Casey 1997, 186). "Site is anti-place hovering precariously over the abyss of no-place" (Casey 1997, 186). "So long as something is a "possible habitat" for a possible body, it can count as a place. Somewhere where no possible human bodily presence could be found, either in fact or by imaginative projection, is not a place to begin with. Only a site can exist without such presence (indeed, a site thrives on the absence of body.) To banish lived body from a place is to threaten to turn that place, the animated correlate of the lived body, into a de-animated site as unlived as it is unlivable" (Casey 1997, 235).

Does this mean that Hartford is uninhabitable? That there are no lived bodies there? But it is inhabited, so is Casey saying that it should not be inhabited, or just that it should be designed to be inhabited differently?

Sometimes, on the other hand, Casey treats site as a kind of degenerate place, but a place nonetheless. This is "because of the body, any place resists leveling to site" (Casey 1997, 210). More generally, Casey says that "There is no being except being in place. Put there other way around, there is no utterly placeless existing, even if there are beings deeply alienated in and from place who suffer from the dire state of being out of their native places. To be a sentient bodily being at all is to be place-bound, bound to be in a place, bodied and bound therein" (Casey 1993, 313).

This would make site a kind of place rather than a non-place, and suggest that there are no pure sites, only site-like places. In this sense site would be never total, but more a designed imperative to overlook our embodiment. But that would undermine Casey's critical rhetoric and move him toward a more precise analysis of just what aspects of a place are more site-like and what aspects are place-like.

In a footnote to his second place book Casey does seem to be moving in this direction. There moves from his previous duality to a threefold distinction: He wonders if he could divide buildings into place (domestic), space (monumental), and site (panoptic). This association of place with domesticity is interesting in the light of his association of site with institutions; it shows a preference for thinking social life in intimate terms. He concludes that buildings cannot be so divided, but sees "place, space, and site as three potential directions of any effort to construct habitable and enduring buildings." Any building will have "aspects of all three modes." The place aspect will be the inclusion of interiors, the space aspect connection with the larger landscape, the site aspect geometry in relation to spatial expanses. Here he seems to be contrasting connection with the landscape to connection with the city, thus reducing the social city to a "spatial expanse" (Casey 1997, 419n26).

Casey's three-fold division and the admission that all buildings will share in all three modes is an improvement over the previous duality. Yet the association of place with domesticity suggests the limits of Casey's underlying attitude. (Casey's reliance on solo experiences of nature as paradigmatic examples of place turns the analysis away from where it has to go.) The favoring of intimate, nature-connected locales cannot be arrived at from so general a definitions of place without importing pre-judgments about kinds of life and kinds of institutions, not just kinds of place. Still, this multi-dimensional notion of place is much more useful than the abrupt dualities found in his discussion of site.

In this web and book project, I have been arguing that what is often going on in contemporary places is that they and our social being are overly simplified and not allowed their full richness of connection. The problem is not a reduction to geometrical site.

The concept of site functions on too many levels in Casey's analysis; it is trembling on the edge of inconsistency. This is useful for Casey, though, because he wants his phenomenological analyses to be immediately applicable to concrete cases. So Casey can say, for example, that losing their ancestral grounds led the Navaho to lose the equipoise that allows the surrounding qualitative array of nature to appear as constant qualities and things (Casey 1993, 206).

Once a location meets his criteria for being a site, Casey turns away from just what needs to be looked at, namely the social life and norms and relations that make the location, in my sense, a place. Hartford, and even the road construction, are not without their human relations and grammars. It is the modernity, the formality and abstractness of those relations that cause what Casey labels non-habitation. Design is not the crucial issue. If the road construction were in harmony with the surroundings, or if central Hartford had more outlooks onto nature, it would be more place-like in Casey's sense, but simplified grammars and abstracted forms of life would remain a problem.

Like some writers on deconstruction who try to move immediately from analyses of the conditions of meaning to social commentary, Casey is trying to use his analyses of the necessary conditions of emplacement for immediate social leverage. But if these conditions are necessary for our being in the world, then there is no locale we experience without them. Yet Casey wants his description of the conditions of our true place-being to function as social diagnostics.

Necessary conditions can be unnoticed, or hidden. They can be in force without our knowing them. If we presume that knowing those conditions is important to our being in the world -- a modern presupposition -- then we can criticize some places for preventing our dwelling from being in touch with itself. Casey wants to make such a criticism, but he does so in the rhetoric of non-place, whereas I think a better approach would be to talk about places and grammars that are too abstract or simplified, or oppressive, or lead away from the appropriate self-relation and openness. It is better to talk about the oversimplified ways in which the necessary conditions may be particularized than to talk about them not being there at all. The latter rhetoric is more dramatic but it offers little help in suggesting what we might do, other than abandon our current life.

Describing site as the loss of place means that Casey does not look at these sites enough. For him they offer nothing to look at, they are just repeated modernist stuff. They are just "dreary tractscapes where the Identical triumphs over the Different and the Same" (Casey 1993, 287). Presumably Casey would never say that what appears to us a featureless dreary desert is so for its aboriginal inhabitants; why does he not think about suburbia from the inhabitants' point of view? Shouldn't he investigate the local myths and histories and find what textures and larger contexts and grammars are implied? We have to look, to find the seeds of complexity, which will be there in the multitude of uses that inhabit even the simplest of contemporary places, in the collisions of grammars, in the way the local norms are twisted or turned into myths or have built in tensions, that work with contrasts with other norms and grammars elsewhere.