I don’t work when I’m on holiday, but this year some of my holiday reading really resonated with one of my ever-increasing list of ‘papers I’ll never get around to writing’. The reading was a novel called The City and The City by China Mieville, and the paper’s title is ‘on not confusing the spatial with the visual’.
In brief, it seems to me that a lot of theorising around the visual and the spatial assume that the spatial is always visible: you can see spaces. Plus a lot of writing on the visual in geographical social sciences tends to assume that the visual field allows only two possibilities, of visibility or invisibility. I think that the visual and the spatial overlap (or not) in many more complex and interesting ways than those two assumptions allow. There all sorts of kinds of ways in which things enter the visible; and there are many spaces that can’t be seen; and there are also registers of ambiguous or ambivalent visibility which might, for example, be thought of as the performance of a kind of visual process of disavowal.
Mieville’s novel is a fantastic riff on some of those possibilities. It’s a kind of detective story, set in a city – or two. The cities occupy the same physical space (what Mieville calls ‘grosstopology’), but citizens of one city do not – are not allowed to, learn not to – see the people and buildings that belong to the other. Except that they do, not (quite). And that there are spaces where the two cities are so tightly entangled that space is ‘cross-hatched’. And that crossing from one city to another – ‘breaching’ – both occurs but is also, sometimes, punished with disappearance. It’s a fantastic story with a lot more going on in it than reflections on visuality and spatiality of course (thankyou, China), but the conceit of ‘unseeing’, seeing what you do not see – in Besźel, for example, which is (one of) the city(s), “in the mirror of the car I saw Mr Geary watch a passing truck. I unsaw it because it was in Ul Qoma” – is a paradox I love, fully sufficient to at least some of the complex and contradictory interlockings of the visual and the spatial.