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On Proximity, the first 800 words of a philosophical paper due in two weeks

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In 1966, US anthropologist Edward T. Hall published The Hidden Dimension, in which he developed his version of the theory of Proxemics, the study of the human use of space within the context of culture. Hall argues that, although all people perceive space through sensory devices – sensory devices perhaps in a McLuhanian fashion – cultural frameworks mold and pattern it.

According to Hall, people form space around their bodies; physical space, Hall calls it personal space and one may also refer to it as actual space. Hall also introduces a second level of Proxemics, the macro-level of sensibilities; the cultural expectations of how to shape people’s surroundings (streets, neighborhoods, cities). And as an anthropologist, obviously Hall suggests ways how these macro-levels of space should be organized properly. But what is space and what is proximity and have these two to do with one each other?

Space has a number of connotations. Merriam Webster offers us ten:

  1. a period of time; also:  its duration
  2. a: a limited extent in one, two, or three dimensions: distance, area, volume b: an extent set apart or available <parking space> <floor space> c: the distance from other people or things that a person needs in order to remain comfortable <invading my personal space>
  3. One of the degrees between or above or below the lines of a musical staff — compare line
  4. a: a boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events occur and have relative position and direction <infinite space and time>, b: physical space independent of what occupies it —called also absolute space
  5. The region beyond the earth’s atmosphere or beyond the solar system
  6. a: a blank area separating words or lines, b: material used to produce such blank area; especially: a piece of type less than one en in width
  7. a set of mathematical elements and especially of abstractions of all the points on a line, in a plane, or in physical space; especially: a set of mathematical entities with a set of axioms of geometric character — compare metric space, topological space, vector space
  8. a: linage, b: broadcast time available especially to advertisers
  9. Accommodations on a public vehicle
  10. a: the opportunity to assert or experience one’s identity or needs freely, b: an opportunity for privacy or time to oneself

Is space place? Certainly not in all connotations. There is, for instance, a significant difference between definitions 1 and 10, the first being about time and the latter about experience and privacy. Hall has defined space in the context of the informal or personal space(s) that surround individuals as

  • Intimate space, the closest space surrounding a person. One who wants to enter in this space must be accepted as an intimate; a trustworthy and close friend.
  • Social and consultative spaces, spaces in which people feel comfortable conducting routine social interactions with acquaintances as well as strangers.
  • Public space, the area of space beyond which people will perceive interactions as impersonal and relatively anonymous.

According to Hall, perception of the levels of intimacy of space is culturally determined. People from different cultures perceive space (and place) differently. Hall stressed that differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space, which are internalized in all people at an unconscious level, can lead to serious failures of communication and understanding in cross-cultural settings. For instance, ‘Germans sense their own space as an extension of the ego. One sees a clue to this feeling in the term “Lebensraum,” which is impossible to translate because it summarizes so much’ (Hall p.134). Or when the English use the telephone, Hall observes ‘since it is impossible to tell how preoccupied the other party will be they hesitate to use the phone; instead, they write notes. To phone is to be “pushy” and rude. A letter or telegram may be slower, but it is much less disrupting. Phones are for actual business and emergencies’ (Hall p.140)[1].

Space is a predicament, an entourage of both actual and virtual place. In that sense, space is both place and non-place as Marc Augé enlightens; a constructed area of confidence or non-confidence; space is an object to think with.

Place is the foundation of proximity. The place we take – possess – determines our proximity, nearness to the other; our distance and our state of mind. There is a reason why we crawl together to watch the national football team play or why we gather at squares to empower us in times of political or social trouble as recent history has shown during the Arab Spring.

Both Edward Hall as Peter Sloterdijk use the metaphor of bubbles. It is as if we all live in our own private bubble that is gently glued to other bubbles around us, forming agile, ever changing constructions of togetherness; an indicating amorphousness in which the objective is clear: the continuity of the species.

To Be Continued after the weekend


[1] Please note, Hall said this is 1966. Today’s attitude of the British towards phones has changed significantly.

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Written by Kees Winkel

June 15, 2012 at 21:46

Posted in 1

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