The Geography of Emotions: Love from a Spatial Perspective
by Sean Jobst
February 9, 2015
Love is an inherent human emotion that is expressed in various ways, depending on the person and the context. If love is the relation of individuals to other people (whether part of their group or not) or to something higher than themselves (such as notions of nations or homelands), we should expect some correlation with human geography, which examines the relationship of people and space. This correlation was examined by Carey-Ann Morrison, Professor of Geography at the University of Waikato in Aotearoa, New Zealand. By "paying attention to the way people think about love, desire love and imagine love could offer new insights into how they/we love ourselves, others, places and nations" (Morrison, 513).
On the one hand, "we may (as individuals, as communities, as nations) no longer believe in love, but we still fall for it" (Stacey and Pearce, 12). Perhaps for this reason, there has generally been a reluctance on the part of geographers to speak about love. However, in recent decades there has been an upsurge in geographies of emotion and affect. Part of this apparent apprehension speaks to our own human expressions of love. While most people admit that love is vitally important, there is a "lack of public discussion" about love, which is associated in their minds with "private" spaces and feelings (Hooks, xvii).
Acknowledgement of the role of love from a spatial perspective is not new, such that there is actually a word for it: topophilia, meaning "love of place." It was defined by the philosopher Alan Watts as "a special love for peculiar places." One of its earliest proponents was Yi-Fu Tuan, a Chinese-American geographer who said his love of geography countered personal feelings of emptiness within his own life. Topophilia is viewed by Morrison as "a useful concept which allows for the exploration of emotional connections between physical environments and humans" (Morrison, 506), by recognizing "the depth of human attachment to the 'natural' world."
While love is often treated "as a given, essential and buried deep within us," from a geographical view "feelings of love change and manifest differently in different spaces and places" (ibid., 512). But what is love? "Across the social sciences, scholars, geographers included, have had difficulty locating a language of love" (ibid., 507). With the possible exception of English where love is reduced to a general reductionist term, other languages and cultures have a more nuanced vocabulary of love that expands and enriches our human understanding. The various stages and degrees of love in various cultures and traditions reflect their attitudes toward romantic love, the love between parents and children, spiritual love in how people relate to the Divine or the Divine relates to them, and several other ways that love manifests in human experience (Eck, xxiii-xxiv).
Geographers have been increasingly looking at love from various aspects, translating it into concepts like care, labor, trust, commitment, and the relationships between self and others. "This opens up the way for questions such as 'what does it mean to do something in the name of love?' and 'how does love form subjectivities, boundaries, spaces and places?' to be at the centre of academic inquiry" (Morrison, 508). The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has analyzed the "poetics of space," observing how the inside of a home "acquires a sense of intimacy, secrecy, security, real or imagined, because of the experiences that come to seem appropriate for it" (Said, 54-55).
Each of these terms denote an emotional "feeling" of love in one form or another. It can often become expressed in folklore and expressions in the language. I can draw from my own ethnic background as an example, being of Swabian German and Castilian Spanish ancestry. Swabians, who inhabit southwest Germany, have a simple yet profound saying that expresses how such emotions can carry into a spatial realm - "Schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue" (work, work, build a home). This expressed a feeling of security through working to inhabit one's own space (Kollewe). "The objective space of a house - its corners, corridors, cellar, rooms - is far less important than what poetically it is endowed with, which is usually a quality with an imaginative or figurative value we can name and feel: thus a house may be haunted, or homelike, or prisonlike, or magical" (Said, 55).
Human beings occupy a specific place within time and space, so logically our human experiences would similarly reflect a spatial perspective. These different cultural concepts of love have a direct effect on geography. Within the Hindu tradition, "vatsalya" refers to the unconditional love of the parent for their children. The etymology of the word relates to "vatsa" (calf), so "vasalya" literally means "mother-cow love," the spontaneous love that flows whenever the calf is near (Eck, xxiv). The Hindu reverence for cows and prohibition of their consumption has shaped the human geography of India. This includes shaping the diet, determining what is used for medicinal purposes, fuel or fertilizer, and professions that religious minorities gravitate towards compared to the Hindu majority (Hobbs, 294).
Symbolically, love can relate to the body, with metaphors of the female body in particular being related to the land. One might think this is to be expected, given that bodies cannot be separated from the spaces and places in which they are constituted (Longhurst). In his 100 Love Sonnets, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda symbolized the physical contours of his Chilean homeland with the female body; he extrapolated upon this by saying that homeland is not only a matter of geography but also a sense of belonging to a community - nation and nationhood (Ouyang, 120). He was thus using the metaphor to demonstrate the importance of human notions of community to geography.
Specific places often are determined by the actions of human beings, such as the formation of many boundaries. Yet, at the same time there are also physical boundaries. Human geography is then to be experienced as both "real" and the imaginary. "Space is experienced through the loved and loving body, and the body is situated in space. Sometimes spaces are 'real', sometimes discursive, sometimes psychoanalytic and imaginary. The ways in which people 'play out' scenes of love in their thoughts, fantasies and dreams play an important role in shaping desires in 'real' world situations" (Morrison, 513). From a psychoanalytic view, love is crucial to forming individual subjectivities, social groupings and notions of culture.
Love becomes a "form of dependence on what is 'not me', and is linked profoundly to the anxiety of boundary formation, whereby what is 'not me' is also part of me," making them "exposed to, and dependent upon another, who in 'not being myself', threatens to take away the possibility of love" (Ahmed, 125). In this sense, a "homeland" is then formed over a specific territory to which an ethnic group possesses a deep historical and cultural association. This is the formation of a particular national identity. The concept of love plays an important role here, as love symbolizes a sense of community that is "inclusionary" toward others forming that identity.
Just as languages and cultural traditions have various nuanced concepts of love, so too do they often possess expressions of a melancholic or restless "yearning" that can also carry over into geography. The fact that one has to "feel" it to really understand, epitomizes how hard such notions are to translate into other languages. Novelist Henriette Lazaridis-Power has spoken about the painful longing for an absent home, expressed in words where value is assigned on the basis of a physical ability to "get home" or an emotional ability to "find home", which can sometimes be elusive. "So space acquires emotional and even rational sense by a kind of poetic process, whereby the vacant or anonymous reaches of distance are converted into meaning for us here" (Said, 55).
In my opinion, one of the most profound expressions of this "yearning" translated to a spatial context is the Portuguese concept of saudade. This can be loosely translated as "homesickness", a nostalgia where there is longing for a past state of well being that is connected not only to emotions but space. Portuguese ethnologists and poets often spoke of this saudade as the formative element in Portuguese national identity. This made a "special inclination towards overseas exploration" (Leal, 43). If love is to express feelings of relations to others, saudade nurtured local networks as "safe havens of kinship, and friendship within neighborhood communities known as bairrismo" (Leutzsch, 186). As love can sometimes be a personal feeling that is closely guarded, "to say that one has saudade is also to convey that there is some element of the feeling that cannot be fully described because it is too personal" (Giorgi, 75).
This longing for a space can also be for a lost homeland, with an analogy to the heart-broken "lover" who has lost their "love" (in this case, their homeland). This duality of "what is 'not me' is also part of me," is expressed in Palestinian culture, through art, poetry and folktales which express the love for the land. Palestinian national identity is expressed through metaphors of land. One of the most common Palestinian proverbs is "al-Ard mithl al-'Ird" (the land is honor). The word for land (ard) is linguistically close to that for honor ('ird), which emphasizes "the interconnectedness of land, honor, nation, and rights" (Faier, 150). The loss of land - and, hence, of honor - is expressed through Palestinian Land Day, which is commemorated every March 30th. Just as the Chilean Neruda used the metaphor of the contours of the female body, many Palestinian cities have feminine names since "women figuratively give birth to the nation as place and people" (ibid., 148). "Owning land thus allows the farmer a sense of security, belonging, honor, and pride of place. Lack of land ownership, as experienced among tenant farmers or sharecroppers, brings none of these. To lose land, a fact of life for Palestinians since al-Nakba in 1948 (continuing today via land confiscation for Israeli settlements, military bases, and roads), represents a sense of being uprooted, losing one's livelihood, insecurity, and defeat" (Farsoun, 25-26).
While metaphors of love are rife within geography, we should beware of "a narrow, idealized and limited version of love as only associated with spaces and subjectivities of traditional romantic love," according to Morrison. "This is despite recent suggestions that modes of love and loving in late-modern detraditionalized societies have undergone fundamental changes with new patterns and forms of intimacy emerging" (Morrison, 508). If the "modern" world arose from the rise of colonialism, we can connect changing patterns to knowledge of geography that was stolen from the Indigenous nations by colonizers. "They transferred knowledge across large cultural and linguistic divides separating those who saw America as a New World from those Indigenous peoples who were very much at home in their own Old Worlds," says Canadian professor Anthony Hall. "By replacing narratives of discovery with narratives of encounters between different peoples, the way is gradually being opened to a wider understanding of the crucial role of Aboriginal groups and individuals in the transformation of the continent throughout the post-Columbian era" (Hall, 289).
Thus we see in the encounters between different cultures and peoples the need to consider love as a factor in geography. Morrison calls for "geographers who are invested in understanding discourses of the Other," for "how, where and what one loves is deeply political" (Morrison, 506). It has always been political, from the very moment land was separated into boundaries that was inclusive towards some while exclusive toward others. "In other words, this universal practice of designating in one's mind a familiar space which is 'ours' and an unfamiliar space beyond 'ours' which is 'theirs' is a way of making geographical distinctions that can be entirely arbitrary" (Said, 54). This is arbitrary because its only necessary for one of the people to even acknowledge the distinction. "All kinds of suppositions, associations, and fictions appear to crowd the unfamiliar space outside one's own" (ibid.).
Morrison makes a profound case for examining the role of love in geography, but although a fresh perspective it does not mean there are no flaws of its own. "I am concerned that in trying to unpack love while critiquing social science for an 'uncritical, placeless and essentialist account of bodies that love' we may risk falling into the same essentialist trap" (Inwood, 721). To reduce the subject to "the amorphous and singular 'Other' we flatten out difference - and its sociospatial consequences - and arguably reproduce the exclusions that a politicization of love would/could potentially counter" (ibid., 722).
One does not need to embrace the whole Freudian apparatus and its attendant assumptions about sexuality and family to suggest projection (205). The Indian philosopher Homi K. Bhabha has coined the concept of a "third space" where two or more cultures interact with each other in expressions of ambiguity. This dialectic of division can often collapse in crises which are themselves symptoms of how "the ambivalent identifications of love and hate occupy the same psychic space," where "paranoid projections 'outwards' return to haunt and split the space from which they are made" (Bhabha, 149). But "as long as the boundary is retained between the territories, and the narcissistic wound is contained, the aggressivity will be projected on to the Other or the Outside" (ibid.). Love is truly complicated and complex at times, not always straight-forward but very much ambivalent. In a like vein, so too is how we relate to others and therefore perceive geography.
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