Archives for category: language


I’ve been reading about how translators deal with poetry, with specific reference to ancient Chinese poems (since I’m in Wuhan this week).

If, say, you recreate the famous Yellow Crane Tower poem by Cui Hao (704 – c. 754) literally in English, you get something very impressionistic.  A series of ideas.  You have to fill in the gaps to link these ideas together and make your own sense of it.

Past person already gone yellow crane away
Here only remain yellow crane tower
Yellow crane once gone not return
White cloud 1000 years sky leisuredly
Clear river clear Hanyang tree
Fragrant grass parrot islet
Day dusk homeland pass what place be
Mist water river on become person sorrow.1

It’s making me think that all language use basically involves placing loose representative concepts, which are more like fields of conceptual probability, in proximity to one another.  We use syntax to link and order these concepts – but syntax is really a sort of rhetoric, which only gives the appearance of linearity and logic.  In fact, what we are doing is papering over the gaps, and directing our audience away from interferences, between these conceptual fields.

Anyway, it’s a nice poem, so here is a composite version of various translations that are floating around:

A man of old left a long time ago on the yellow crane;
All that remains here is Yellow Crane Tower.

The yellow crane left, never to return;
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.

The trees in Hanyang are all reflected in the clear river;
The fragrant grasses grow luxuriantly on Parrot Island.

In this dusk, I don’t know where my homeland lies;
The river’s mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it’s build build build…  Wuhan has over 10 million residents, and is tipped for plenty of investment and development in the next decade.


Optics Valley Square, Wuhan

Wuhan, 26 February 2017


Biennale Spazzio Pubblico 2015 Carta dello Spazio Pubblico

A colleague from Italy recently sent me a ‘Charter of Public Space’.1 This has been prepared as a contribution to the third Conference of the United Nations on Human Settlements, which will be held in 2016.  Relatedly, I noticed that in 2011 UN-Habitat adopted a resolution on ‘sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces’.  I can’t help but like these aspirations. The idea of having a commonly, globally agreed set of principles to guide policies and practices around public space, along with official acknowledgement of its importance, is very attractive. At the same time, however, I’m not sure that its conceptual foundation is a solid one.

The case for identifying public space as a collective good to which urban citizens have something approaching a human right seems clear enough at first glance.  Its justification typically relies on the contention that our previously ‘public’ spaces are being increasingly ‘privatised’. This, in turn, is understood as being detrimental to various things that it is difficult to dislike: social equity, social cohesion, quality of life, the quality of the democratic process, and so on.  The privatisation of the city is, in short, seemingly at odds with the so-called ‘right to the city’.

But things are not so simple.  What precisely is this ‘publicness’ which is being undermined?  The ‘public’ is a slippery pit of a concept, filled with wriggling, overlapping tendencies; its contents and shape change depending on the perspective from which it is viewed.  In the absence of a firm definition, the central claim, that the ‘public’ is being usurped by the ‘private’ – begins to look rather tautological; each term has no meaning beyond that of its opposition to the other.  If, alternatively, our use of the adjective ‘public’ relies on a particular criterion – for example, that of legal ownership – then it becomes unclear why we need to use the word ‘public’ at all.2

One of the reasons for the confusion is that the term is archaeologically layered. Its current everyday uses retain vestiges of its various meanings since antiquity (Habermas, 1989); they hang around in language as fossilised referents to social structures quite unlike those of today. In its newer theorisations, it reflects at least a postmodern sensibility, and possibly even the actual slow dissolution of liberal statehood: we now talk about multiple, fragmented publics, pragmatic emergent publics, and ‘assemblages’ of publicness where the boundaries between the human and the non-human are blurred.

Alongside its temporal variety, though, I also want to know more about how well the word ‘public’ travels across space.  How do its various meanings map onto cognate words in non-European languages? Which of its conceptualisations remain analytically or normatively useful in societies far removed from the heartlands of liberal democracy? These questions have obvious significance for an attempt to introduce a global charter of public space.  It would seem problematic if, as Hogan et al. (2012) suggest, talk of the privatisation of urban space sometimes presumes a publicness which didn’t previously exist.

Next month, anyway, I’ll be in Korea – and this is one of things I’ll be thinking about while I’m there. If any Korean speakers are reading this, I would value any thoughts you have.

22 May 2014, London


1 Thank you to Vittorio Pagliaro, of the Second University of Naples, for sending me the Charter of Public Space.  I imagine this is available from the website of the Biennale di Spazio Publico (, but this was undergoing maintenance at the time of writing.  If anybody wants a pdf in English, just let me know.

2 Indicatively of the lack of agreement over the concept, it has been argued that ownership is at best a peripheral dimension of publicness (Parkinson, 2012).


Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hogan, T., Bunnell, T., Pow, C.-P., Permanasari, E. & Morshidi, S. (2012). Asian urbanisms and the privatization of cities. Cities, 29:59–63.

Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UN-Habitat (2011). Draft resolution on sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces. HSP/GC/23/CRP.4/Rev.1. Available from: (accessed 21 May 2015)

space and language

There’s something I’ve wondered about over the last three years. If others have written about the same thing more competently, please let me know, and I will immediately delete this post.

I am curious about one particular parallel between ways of thinking about language and space, and what its implications might be. I’m trying to work out how it might be useful in thinking about transformations in urban space.

I’m not thinking exactly about the debates over the relationship between natural language and spatial cognition (although I might be); nor about the way people talk of things like the ‘language of architecture’ (although there’s no reason I might not be). Descriptions of space sometimes do borrow linguistic terms: we talk of ‘urban morphology’; there’s an urban design company called ‘Space Syntax’; and so on. My starting point is somewhere else….

Let’s simplify the field of linguistics into three areas of enquiry: semantics, syntax, and – to lump a few fields together – language as actually spoken or written. This third category I will refer to as ‘performance’. What has caught my attention in the past is the structural similarity between this and tripartite models of spatial analysis. These spatial models label their three dimensions differently, but, for the purposes of my loose thinking here, I will crudely simplify them to: meaning, form, and performance.1 Putting the two frameworks side by side gives us the following:

linguistic and spatial analysis

By the ‘form’ of space, I mean its formal characteristics – its raw shape and materiality – that which exists prior to, or beyond, our perception of it. I’m happy enough to accept both that reality will always exceed what we can know about it, and that things have a ‘thingness in themselves’. If, though, you tend towards thinking that there is no reality outside our perceptions, or that external reality is just a shapeless soup, or simply that speculating about this sort of thing is futile, then you might still accept that the ‘form’ of space describes its abstract qualities: its geometrical aspect.

The ‘performance’ of space, meanwhile, describes what we perceive: its sensory appearance, and what seems to happen ‘in’ it. This includes the goings-on of organic life; humans are also part of the perceived material world – objects as well as subjects, if you want to talk in those terms. The performance of space cannot be directly read off its formal qualities, though is constrained by these – just as actual performed language is enabled and constrained by syntax. Performed language, just like performed space, may be playful or transgressive, and not entirely predictable. At this point I’m obliged to make reference to de Certeau’s (1984) famous metaphorical use of walking through a city to evoke the idea of (potentially transgressive) agency within structural constraints. The connection with language is made clear by de Certeau: he talks of the ‘poetry’ of urban walking (to suggest its creative, improvisational, and rule-bending character); and explicitly refers at one point to Chomsky’s (1965) distinction between, on the one hand, the ‘performance’ of language – that is, utterances or texts as actually produced – and, on the other, idealised ‘competence’ in a language. Yes, I know I’m dipping in and out of different contestable ideas here – and, as will become clear, I specifically don’t want to think in terms of hierarchical causal structures – but I’m just seeing where it might take me.

The ‘meaning’ of space, meanwhile, describes our interpretation of what we perceive. This is the realm of affect, theory, emotions, and so on. Since the meaning of space will always be endlessly multiple, this is where contestations and politics spring from. Space may of course have ‘dominant meanings’ to which we may be blind, but they may be challenged by various alternatives. This aspect of space, therefore, is the site of ideological struggle. The meanings of space, in turn, affect the way that the formal qualities of the space are shaped in future, and constrain their performative qualities. This does not leave space in a state of shapeless flux. The different meanings that emerge from our entanglement with materiality (ie performed space) may coalesce into discourses, neither evanescent nor permanent, given voice through possibly self-conscious ‘publics’ of different types. Similarly, the performative qualities of a given space may be at least broadly predictable in the short-term, and the form of the built environment in particular has a lot of ‘friction’ built into it; it contains relatively permanent structures, each of which represents the outcome of a particular struggle of meanings at a particular time, but none of which are eternal.

There is no causal linearity here, then. Everything affects everything else, rather unpredictably. What we seem to have is an iterative triangularity:

spatial analysis

Thinking now about my three linguistic dimensions, let’s start with meaning. I’m comfortable with the idea that we can only see meaning as located within, or as a part of, language. This is the case whether we tend towards a post-structuralist view of meaning as only ever relational, or if we imagine, alternatively, that ‘pure’ thoughts (ideas, comparisons, decisions, responses, insights…) bubble up electronically from somewhere in the pre-consciousness, and are then translated, via semantics and syntax, into actual words. In the latter linear scenario, it is tautologically the case that meaning is created only at the point where our cognitive linguistic software kicks in.  Whatever ‘pre-meaning’ is beyond that is, self-evidently, unknowable in terms of meaning. Simultaneously, though, we might conversely see meaning as shaped by the formal constraints of language (syntax – and even metaphor – though I’m interested to think about what the spatial equivalent of a metaphor would be). We can accept that meaning is to some extent shaped by form without adopting a wholesale belief in the older ‘Sapir-Whorf’ hypothesis that our cognitive processes are delimited by the particular ways that phenomena are categorised in our own language.  Even more importantly, we develop deeper interpretations of the perceptual world precisely through the performance of language (clarifying and exploring meaning by, for example, writing and discussing things with others); in this way, meaning emerges from performance. Meaning in language (as in space) seems to be both emergent and generative.

Syntax, similarly, seems to be both structured and structuring. I see it as having an ontological ambivalence. On the one hand, syntax might be said to exist, in that it affects the world.  On the other, where actually is it?  Is it something that can only be inferred from our performed speech? Like the formal qualities of space, it might be understood in itself as, variously, an abstract model, an illusion, or as something which is ‘there’ but unknowable on its own terms. We also need to account for how syntax changes over time – even if this process (as is the case for the built environment) is slow and uneven; syntax is affected by the ongoing co-evolution of performed language and its meanings. There is a further problem if we think of syntax as an inferred abstraction (which also applies to a conceptualisation of formal space in abstract terms): abstractions are representations – and representations perform ideological work.

Again, then, no definitive causal linear model of language seems possible. Again, we end up with an iterative triangularity:

linguistic analysis

It’s difficult to think in terms of open-ended looping systems where cause and effect are endlessly diffused. We lose our sense of self as humans.  It’s tempting at least to try to retrieve the idea of agency by locating it within performance. Surely, at least here we are free to make choices about what happens in our material surroundings, and how we use our language. Can we look to de Certeau’s urban walk metaphor for salvation? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can. As Thrift (2008) observes, de Certeau’s perspective is itself a humanistic one. What if instead we can only identify shifting assemblages of things and people in space; and what if our conscious actions and words are at the mercy of our preconsciousness? As Thrift reminds us, quoting Lakoff & Johnson (1998:13): “Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 per cent of all thought…the 95 per cent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought”.

Perhaps I’m trying to force a case here that doesn’t need to be made, using selective arguments superficially to solve a curious puzzle that only exists in my imagination. Certainly, the parallels between my two triangles are incomplete and rather shabby in places. They also keep leading me into philosophical jungles for which I have no map.  Time therefore to head back to the main road and drive home to safety. My original (and ongoing) aim was to think about how all this might help me think about urban spatial transformation. So, then, are any useful conclusions possible?

First, it’s important to remember that the spatial triangle is not my own; what I’ve done here is simply to transpose it onto language. My triangular thinking does not allow us to escape from the traditional ‘prisonhouse of language’ – in fact, if my parallels are of any value, they point to an analogous ‘prisonhouse of space’. Equally, though, I have no desire simply to portray our sense of ourselves as autonomous individuals as a delusion, by asserting that instead we are blindly entrapped within the ‘prison’.  Rather, that it makes no sense to think about our own individual agency as such precisely because ‘we’ and the prison are co-constitutive. If linguistics at least alerts us to the nature of the walls of the prisonhouse of language, might it have some lessons for us about the nature of the walls of the prisonhouse of space?

I can’t see how this might teach us about how urban environments might be better governed ‘from above’; the notions of ‘above’ and ‘below’ stop making sense. But even if the search for agency is pointless, we are still left with power, relative and shifting; its distribution never inevitable. And even if our individuality is an illusion, illusions are powerful forces in the world. As illusory individuals, might we learn better decode to the space around us? Might linguistics somehow help us with this? That might at least give us a practical sense of purpose, allowing us to think more confidently about how space might be reconstructed (or re-co-constructed) from within, rather than leaving us resigned to claustrophobic impotence. Which is another way of saying that we shouldn’t try to choose between being either ‘planners’ or ‘planned’; the first move is to accept not only that we are within the plan, but that the plan is also within us.

5 February 2014, London


I make no claims to have more than a vague awareness of the historical debates in and around metaphysics. I am also aware that the blogosphere provides a haven for armchair-based pseudo-philosophers to peddle half-digested ideas, much to the disgust of professional philosophers. In the explicit spirit of dreaming vaguely about the nature of reality and objects, though, and without wanting to align myself pompously and uniformedly with the idea of ‘speculative realism’ (particularly since it seems fashionable to do this in the blogosphere), I do like Graham Harman’s provocative observation that “there is already a long list of anti-object-oriented standpoints from which one can choose, which suggests that objects have a certain potency as philosophical personae that provokes reactive operations” (Bryant et al., 2011:22). He then usefully sketches out the different ways in which objects in themselves have been dismissed by philosophers through the ages, beginning with Anaxagoras. Interestingly, he points out that even in Latour’s ‘flat ontologies’, the object is significant only in terms of “what it modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates… [It] is not an autonomous substance” (23).

2 There’s an established tradition of writers who have developed or drawn on this three-way analysis of space, for different practical, critical, or philosophical purposes, including: Cassirer (1944); Lefebvre (1991) [1974]; Canter (1977); Harvey (eg 1990; 2006); Punter (1991); Soja (1996); Montgomery (1998); and Franck and Stevens (2006).


Bryant, L., Srnicek, N. & Harman, G. (2011). The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:

Canter, D. (1977). The Psychology of Place. London: Architectural Press.

Cassirer, E. (1944). An Essay on Man. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. London: University of California Press.

Franck, K.A. & Stevens, Q. (2006). Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life.

Harvey, D. (1990). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harvey, D. (2006). Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. London: Verso.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1998). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) [1974]. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Montgomery, J. (1998). Making a city: Urbanity, vitality and urban design. Journal of Urban Design, 3(1):93–116.

Punter, J. (1991). Participation in the design of urban space. Landscape Design, (200).

Soja, E.W. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thrift, N. (2008). Non-Representational Theory: space │politics│affect. Abingdon: Routledge.

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