Comforting Lot’s wife

A review of Paul Carter’s Repressed Spaces: The Poetics of Agoraphobia

by Angela Rockel

© all rights reserved

Then, forbidden to turn, many do, many turn … I will describe salt forms, and comfort Lot’s wife and Lot by reminding them that whether the turning is backward or forward, or toward or away from, or in or out, possession of a fixed salt being is no disaster; it is the essence of having turned or attended.

Janet Frame, Living in the Maniototo

In Repressed Spaces, Paul Carter continues a series of projects that attend to experiential, performative and discursive constructions of spaces, urban and otherwise. This book is a meditation on how public spaces work. Using the agoraphobe’s petrified response as a literal touchstone, Carter diagnoses and defines pathological space. He then works to articulate a planning poetic that could re-imagine public space which would not immobilise its users. Working from the premise that agoraphobia is, first of all, a movement inhibition, the book’s structure – an excursion in four movements into the city of agoraphobic experience – defines it as a countermeasure.

The first movement, ‘Turning out’, tracks definitions of agoraphobia from the term’s late nineteenth-century appearance in literatures of cultural criticism and psychoanalysis. These discourses, he argues, understand agoraphobia as a symptom of urban estrangement or psychic displacement whose insecurities could be resolved through social engineering or therapy. Carter challenges the utility of these responses, pointing out that neither acknowledges the possibility that the agoraphobe’s paralysis might be a valid response to the disposition of public space itself.

Whatever else it is, agoraphobia involves a movement inhibition … The movement inhibition is absent from both the psychoanalytic literature and the many critiques of modern urbanism and its spaces because, however sophisticated the post-Cartesian geometries are that they invoke, these discourses treat movement in a resolutely Newtonian manner. They don’t give a ‘thick’ description of the everyday spaces we encounter as proprioceptive, mobile bodies. Treating encounters themselves as exceptions to the rule, they oscillate between a fantasy of the autonomous ego and a fear of the crowd. Still employing a binary logic, they ignore the relations of many bodies at a time. They have no theory of arrangements. (71)

To investigate why theories of relations have been excluded from considerations of agoraphobia, Carter turns to the possibility of an environmental repressed. In the introduction to Repressed Spaces, he describes the book as a meditation on questions arising out of a discovery that Freud was agoraphobic, and that he dismissed the matter as being of little importance. Could Freud’s experience, and his dismissal of it, have arisen from ‘an environmental neurosis that had been repressed’ (8)? Section two, ‘Driving’, returns to this question.

In general, in both the cities and the countryside of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitic sentiment was hidden. The Jew who took care to avoid stirring it up could almost persuade himself that it didn’t exist, and that any anxiety he felt was groundless.

In other words, the agoraphobia Freud felt arose not from the presence of a hostile force, but from its apparent absence. It was the menace of the emptiness that kept him in a constantly repressed state of anxiety. (105)

Having argued for the possibility of repressed environmental neurosis per se, section three, ‘Alighting’, asks what other environmental qualities might be being repressed via agoraphobia. Some qualities are guessed at by way of an etymological study of the classical Greek agora. Both place of assembly and the assembly itself, the agora can be understood, according to Carter, as a ‘critical way of inhabiting the environment’ (120).

The gathering together which the agora allowed and encouraged was the in-breath of a collective body whose out-breath was an expanding frontier of armies and navies, trailing in their conquering wake new trade routes, new ideas – and new stimulants to pothos, that type of eros which, at least in Alexander the Great’s all-conquering soul, produced an irresistible desire to go on going beyond the horizon … Its illusion of oneness was the outcome of a widened knowledge of the world’s multiplicity.’ (131)

Using this ‘buried’ experience of agora, section four, ‘Meeting’, moves to an understanding of agoraphobic paralysis as arising from a longing for connections in and across time/place, and attends to the possibility of creating spaces that might allow and encourage a multiplicity of intersecting tracks and traces of experience.

[The agoraphobe’s] anxiety springs not from the new immensity of the clearings, or even from the terrifying traffic they now harbour. It arises from the clearing away of tracks. What appears as a removal of obstacles to progress inters the ground’s historical fingerprint. The new mobility is billiard ball-like, not bipedal. (210–211)

Carter imagines a poetics of/for agoraphobia and agoraphobes – a poetics of approach (as distinct from an agoraphobic poetic that merely represents experience, however richly). This poetics of agoraphobia is understood as creating spaces that allow and encourage movements in relation to others. Inaugurating ‘an art of grouping’, it brings alternatives to the horror of glancing encounters in slippery-smooth streets. The artist Alberto Giacometti is used as an instance of this way of inhabiting/representing environments. His work, and especially his interest in composing groups of figures in public places, becomes a springboard for discussion of how to create spaces that foster meeting, where ‘the adventure of the ethical relation’ (193) can happen. This conversation is the one that underlies the whole of Repressed Spaces. The book presupposes de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (although, curiously, it doesn’t mention it). It could be read, in particular, as a response to the essay ‘Walking in the city’ – a celebration of pedestrian/subversive uses of space within the grid-world of the city planners. Repressed Spaces asks the question: ‘What about the ones who can’t make do in the city – the ones who are paralysed by trackless surfaces and straight lines designed for traffic?’ The book works to re-imagine the experience of agoraphobia and to suggest new cures, comforting Lot’s wife in her paralysis looking back at the erased city, and Lot moving toward a future topos.

Angela Rockel is a writer and editor who lives in Tasmania. Recent publications include ‘Remember: A working definition of blessing’ in Salt. v 16, and ‘Meeting the angel’ in Southerly v 62 No 3.

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