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Genius Loci                                                     



The waters of the Grail overflow, their presence betrayed only by a quickening in the air.


Genius Loci: the spirit of the place; the content of a form.


As if the transmutation of form into content were not already troubling enough, we are also asked to envisage the notion of pure form (space or extension) giving birth to an invisible content. Yet this is something we do everyday. Certain shapes in space, in the landscape before us, seem to offer up certain types of experience. Experiences that suggest some form of presence. What, or who, is there...? We sense space, and in so doing give sense to space, every time we move from one physical environment to another. The form, the shape of the space, becomes the bearer of a silent message, its unmanifest manifestation. The auto-conjuration of a force we can not see but are able to symbolise; a personification (or prosopopoeia, the evocation the absent, the abstract or the dead). The repeated calling-up of a shape-shifter whose transformation we can not witness, but which we sense through our feelings. Something we perceive only as a change of space, a re-configuration of geography. A changing context. Evoking something, someone... Making something like us: but different. A relationship not unlike that of an echo with its origin, sometimes diminished, sometimes amplified, but always with an unmistakable, if distorted, family resemblance. A resemblance which includes our more distant, more elusive relatives; sprites, spirits and ghosts. And then again there are the others: the altogether larger entities that people the world of our imagination; gods, immortal beings, and the many allegories of natural force (otherworldly, mythic, indestructible). Like us and not like us. But strangely always with a resemblance to our interiors, as if expressing us, expressing our innermost feelings and needs. The spirit of the place is always in this sense something like the emotional meaning of a poem visualised. 


Natural being is given a face. At the very least a sense of presence. We are aware of it; but we also sense that it may be aware of us (watching us). The result is the imputation of a supernatural form of life, of intelligence, of entity (of Spirit) - a reflection of our own subjectivity. Hence the habitual uncanniness of such places. We feel the eyes and can only imagine the face. In this way Nature gives birth to the supernatural. Itself the curse or blessing of a space. Space functions as a figure capable of pointing towards another level of meaning, indicating another level of presence - and in this way is transformed into place. The spirit of the place.


Other places gain spirit through memory; the watcher brings a history, the proximity of personal or family memories, or the burden of History itself - the names of battlefields. The site of unmarked graves. Remembrance too shifts space into place.


A place is always peopled; never more than when it is empty.


Space when empty is doubly so.


Such form carries its own message. At the moment of its implication it is at once container, screen, as well as extension. Implying, in turn, the presence of some being as its (super)natural filling. Our seemingly infinitesimally-refinable human sensitivity to space means that there is no basic or empty extension in the world that remains untouched by our experience or by the affective shades of mood we carry within us.


Form as performance. Invisible mummery. When space, extension and co-ordinates become a container, site becomes a stage. Becomes even the anticipated if unseen performance or content due to that stage. Like the flickering light of an indefinable tableau projected by transparencies that turn out, on close examination, to be translucent, void of any discernible content. With different kinds of ghostly performance acting as the analogue for differing types of experience and community. A silent masque of the unseen stretched-out between the imagination and the place. The basic demand for a content or a performance, given the presence of a stage-like form, is apparently fundamental to human response and understanding. A gift of perception as well as a gift of place.


Experience and imagination require a content. Just as the sense of the present in time must be clearly present; otherwise temporal ambiguity ensues. Something always flows into the mould; consciousness is always consciousness of something. Something arrives to fill the spaces that frame. This something then requires a name - and imputes an entity. This process of cognition appears to be a rule followed intuitively in the case of self-framing forms (canyon, valley, glade, clearing), already filled spaces (lake, pool, spring, well), or self-framing objects like mountains (Mt. Fuji, Mt. Olympus, Mt. Ararat) - or even statues (another form of the personification of myths and ideals).


So the reflection of the spirit of places that floats upon the waters of the mind is itself a reflection of the spirit of places that lie within us. An image disturbed by the ripples of that which it was intended to portray, a barely discernible motion beneath the waters. Like the reading of entrails, the forms of the exterior act as an unlikely guide to the forms of our interior life. The carving out of our interiors performed by the projections of exterior space becomes itself the operation which offers a clue to the construction of our interiors. Interiors which not only turn out to have conspired in their own carving-out, but, in turn, then incorporate these same exteriors, making them a part of their all-encompassing systems of belief. Worlds which include their own vexed relations of margin to centre (but which we should more properly call their frame): the exalted and the abjected; the sacred and the profane; the ideal and the transgressive. All these relations refracted through our everyday habit of personification as the gods and demons, angels, heroes, and other minor entities of whichever given belief system we happen to inhabit. Be it one of the world's many religions proper or one of their supposedly secularised twins.


Sacrality lodged in our fundamental experience of space itself (perhaps one of our most important modern forms of sacrality 'after the sacred'?). Why is it that some things or places should bear this old fashioned sounding label: 'the sacred'? Or can we not ask this question without posing another: the existence of experience segregated from the sense of the sacred? As if we could avoid its transformative touch, conferring value with presence (conferring the present of value, the gift of value). Even in the everyday forms of its manifestation to which we have become accustomed. Such as our many 'secular' gods and ideals, ranging from democracy, justice and profit, to our investments in identity and its ever-present shadow and Siamese twin, our sense of recognition and belonging, to our everyday folklore and mythology (such as the so-called 'urban myths' beloved by our visual genres and popular fiction). The place of these entities is to be found in our own response to space. A place for these entities is found in our own space.


Fundamentals & abstractions (sex & gender). Are there really just two basic forms of affective space? Containers and exposed elements informing our reception of hollows and valleys, of mountains and outcrops. Pre-eminently sexed, or sexable, landscape imagery, certainly. And not just as the old binary, phallic/vaginal, of the male/female distinction and (their cultural inflection) the masculine /feminine differentiation. All these landscape features are also redefinable as feminine - perhaps reflecting a masculine or female-desiring point of view, if not a maternal memory, as its source (with the opposite also true, mutatis mutandis). Although increasingly the arrival of an assertive and successful femininity (not necessarily the same as an assertive and successful feminism) allows a positive tagging to these features, whilst still retaining their definition as feminine - but with any opprobrium removed. Perhaps allowing-in the play of presence and absence in all their connotative power. Perhaps laying the basis for a new female paganism, a feminine sacred based upon Nature. Or perhaps leaving only multiple communities of expectation and interpretation.


Rooms in nature. Transparent containers. The glow of light filtered through leaves, funnelled down by walls of rock, or just reflected on water. The ambiguity of the inside that is outside suggests an added value for a given space, and may even come to symbolise a greater place elsewhere or above. The viewing of Nature's room through a temporal filter adds shades of sacrality. A change of space offers a subtle change in temporality. Changing every time. In this way certain kinds of space suggest a different sense of time, or a collision of times, or even a call or an escape beyond time. In whatever aspect, a special time: simultaneously archaic, where the past may be found knocking on the door of time's distant horizon, and -perhaps less urgently- the future equivalent of this archaic upsurge; a utopian image revealed in pastoral form - pointing more to the immediate beyond of the temporal horizon rather than its nethermost regions. Ultimately we may well be lead to the intimation of our removal from the cocoon of temporality and into the realm of eternity. The other time that is not-time.


To hazard a formula: the ordering of the present in the sequence, past-present-future, requires the outside of time as its unassailable (and imaginary) foundation. In this way we find the link between temporality and its other, with the co-ordinates of space/time and with ideology, through the medium of identity and community. In effect the extrapolation or conjuring-up of the outside of time from the (illusion of the eternal in the) present returns to cement it into larger units of social time, into a cohesive and comprehensive belief system, a 'world'.


Nature's room is a half-way house or reminder of this impossible foundation - a defacto temple, or site of recognition of our debt to this essential yet evasive configuration.


In a word: it is due to this uncancellable -if occasionally forgotten- debt that the ambiguities of space + time = place.  A particular configuration of space triggers an invisible temporal analogue -our affective response- which is read as the consecration of the given site as place.)


Other sites are peopled by memory. They belong to a person, a family, or a community. Such sites may have originated in a spirited place. But the spirits that populate them now are our ghosts. The ghosts of memory and not the spirits of the place. Nor the wind that blows from temporality's furthest gate.


Five theses on the comprehensibility of space.


(I) Normal space is the space of passage, with time experienced only as a passage through space. Stopping accrues meaning, spaces become important and in gathering meaning, eventually become place. Reported, known, perhaps even mythologised; taking their 'place' in some form of narrative. Earning their place among others of note, deserving note. Deserving a name.


(II) Two fundamental such narrativised forms of place exist (perhaps they even guarantee the significance, the very comprehensibility, of narrative).  The 'temple' and the 'home' (with all their riches of reference, actual, mythic and imaginary). House of God and House of Man, made up of a piled-up form  (perhaps exhibiting some form of hypsosis, a sky-pointing or soaring) or of a superimposed sense of rooms in a particular geography. A geography whose roots have entwined with the human nervous system. It is these intimate and mythic elements that, in their own way, summon eternity. Eternity, the present instant extrapolated into sacrality. 


(III) The effects of the sacred can also be uncanny. And if they partake of the negative uncanny, then it may be the threatening, rather than the homely aspects of the sacred, that predominate.


(IV) If the divided sense that makes up the uncanny container of place (the implications of being a room and not-room, or home and not-home simultaneously) gives birth to our bewitched state, then we are given cause to wonder if the sun and moon we see through the wall of branches are still those of our familiar world. Indeed, the co-presence of these contraries, of enclosed room and opening space, may also suggest to our nervous systems a sense of positive and negative - shelter or terror. Is it the welcome of the ancestors or the red hand of the fiend that await us there? Is the brightness we sense etching the landscape before us that of the glowing hall of the elf king or a glimpse of the fires of hell?


(V) In a place that makes itself felt in such a way (whether in a positive or negative form of the uncanny) the result is a 'strong' sense of place. A place that calls our attention from out of ourselves (that calls upon the list of stages alluded to above, that runs the gamut of the ABC of 'place') is more than just another place. The strong sense of its own presence is itself uncanny, even before other specific geographic or geological factors come into play. We feel moved by such places, and we try to explain them, to name them, to use them, even to share in their special sense, the special mood they evoke (but here we are already caught, for such moods are always already our own...).  The formula for such a particular sense of place might run: the Uncanny, a home yet not a home (Unheimlich), where space becomes (like) a room (yet is patently not a room), a container containing - a certain unspecified something. Possessing a strong individual identity (the effect of the process described in (I) above). Become place, a place of value, a valued place, no longer just a part of space as the site of perpetual passage, as plain invisible space and time (measured and neutral co-ordinates). Its potential for sacrality has been drawn upon as water is drawn out from a well, a water blest by the touch of another time, marked by the wind and silence of eternity.


Could it be that such a strong identity of place is used to support a strong affective identity for the perceiving self (or selves). The initial disturbance to identity (in fear or in awe) of the uncanny site transmuted into a reinforced self-recognition, excuse for a re-affirmation of a credo (exactly like a ritual transgression). An identity immediately taking the form of a personal ritual image, an image providing the site for, but also itself being the performance of the identity anchored in the rocks and air of the special place. An anchor that must no longer only float like a sea-anchor in the depths of infinity, but that finds a solid place this side of time to fasten upon for its foundation, a foundation nevertheless lifted from brute temporal contingency by the trace of eternity that retains a anchorage on time's other shore, just as a ship at sea prefers a line leading to dry land.


The next step involves the identification and naming of the place, a process which often implies personification (turning inanimate thing into animate person). Or a prosopopoeia (the calling up of the abstract, absent or the dead) which evokes a god, spirit, or sprite. This is the time of the trope which translates site into shrine and thing into sign. A catalyst which facilitates the mysterious crossing from space into place. And a figurative proposition which answers the question: Who's place?


If we listen the answers begin to come... we count to three.


(I) Ours (our place; our interior has found a reflector in geography). The frame that is place holds out a silvered mirror to our fascinated stare.


(II) The illusion, or rhetoric, of the presence of beings (the special being of place as the effect of special being/s). We have stumbled upon the dwelling places of the gods or of other supernatural entities - even if in some cultures this identification is apparently limited to the place of God.


(III) A rationalist third position is also possible: to dismiss both (I) and (II) as superstition (Reason reveals that whether subjective or objective, the result is error). What then takes superstition's place is Truth. This move, however, in all but the most simple and empirical of examples, often leads to the repetition of the two dismissed positions on another level. A twitch of the curtain and we have a return under other names; but the faces of the newly awakened replacements are, all the same, rather familiar. Whose face is it that is dimly glimpsed in the recession of the hall of mirrors, an identity half-concealed in the infinity that bends beyond vision? Whose but our own. No matter how often the name may change, the mask retains features that are uncannily recognisable. How much more realistic to work with the given, to accept it as a gift, than to eviscerate ourselves in the futile quest for a hollowed-out Real. For within this new private illusion of personal purity, of individual transcendence, of rationalist sovereignty, there lies the source of a new terror, the pogrom, the inquisition, the dominance of a New Illusion.


' accept it as a gift'. Indeed to turn (it) into a gift. Of ourselves to others: of it to ourselves. For just as every religion is capable of reform and abstraction, so the pre-conditions of religion, such as they lie within us, are capable of a life after religion (but not by being a new religion, nor by pretending not to be a new religion, a third thing is required...).


Walking, and there it is... hovering... something poised above the waters. Rocks around, the river below, broadening into still water, winding into a pool, enclosed, protected from the sky by a circle of trees. Opening up to a circle of sky, a circle of blue light echoing the pool in which it is reflected. The sense of enclosure suggests a room; a rivergod's room.  Place of rest, abode, dwelling.  Personification enters through the portal of an implied genitive sense; possession leads to prosopopoeia. As if to answer the question: yes... but whose room? If we hold our nerve, it can be ours.


A sense of entry, exit and a bounded sacrality which misses a step with time; the formula for a minimal ritual. Space refolded until it becomes the site of its own performance; until its stones shift time and the ritual frame becomes the portal to the place of first and last things. As in the aura of a sacred building - or as contained in the sense of the sacred which may be found within the quiet of a home. As the light moves from the silence of room to room.


Space of ritual; place as rituality. The sense of place as a performance. The intensity that distinguishes it from ordinary space. The invitation to ritual is always already a ritual itself. Both stage and drama. Its boundedness, its frame; a site for the dance of a god, a portal to the other time, a time both before and after. Mythic. Eternal. Site for the foundation which is the bridge thrown into the void. And repetition: this space, left alone, will continue to become place over and over again. Rituality: an intense repetition which supports our identity, which refounds a community.


Replacing the space between. Placing a value where, before, there was only space. The three dimensional void of pure extension; no actual geography can be so pure (perhaps only today's proliferating spaces of transit can be so free of a sense of arrival). Place is space full of itself. Empty yet complete; replete with a plenitude invisible yet ineluctably present; like soaring, the play of light, or calm. Invisible and patient like liquid. Like the cup which overflows. Or the sea in sunlight, at once transparent and capable of dazzling. Intensity incarnate; embodied emptiness. And the more intense the sense of place, the more its presence seizes the observer, the more place is the space (that would be set aside) for ritual. The more it is always already a ritual in itself. Ritual spaces are always implicated in the sense of place; places are spaces where time gains in value until it is rent and shivers away, opening onto the landscape of eternity. There are places where one does stand on ceremony. Eternity, whether in the form of the quick-silver light high in the branches or the dark sunburst within, like the empty trunk hollowed by fire; eternity, the otherside of time, whose otherwise invisible presence or silent proximity can only be measured by degrees of sacrality. A sacrality itself which is always an index leading to the more intense, more insistent, elements of our identity, embedded like a thorn or a nail deep in our psychic architecture, buried deep in our spiritual flesh, occasionally calling, always grasping hold of some new element in our environment (as the lustre of old things fades). Identity: the first thing to be summoned through the rite of last things. (Identity: by no means the last thing to be ordered by the evocation of last things).


Stand on the threshold, or step inside.


Know where you are. Know what you are. Know who you are.


Genius Loci.



                                                                                Copyright 2002, 2005 Peter Nesteruk