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2 An Abridged Foundation

In his “Inoperative Community” Jean Luc Nancy (1986) affirms that 'being in the world' (dasein; Heidegger, 1927) is 'being with' (mitsein, ibidem): we live together with other people so that the community becomes'la position réelle de l'existence' (Nancy, 1986, p. 203). Introducing his book, Nancy grounds community on the existence of “a clinamen, an inclination or an inclining from one toward the other, of one by the other, or from one to the other” (1986, p. 3). In his words, “Community is at least the clinamen of the 'individual.'” (ibid., p. 4): 'inclination' and 'clinamen' are both terms characterizing positions and movements, so that even the concept of community originates in a spatial discourse. But what links community and space is even deeper: saying that the very primary experience of being of any person involves other people, toward whom she is inclined and with whom she constitutes a community (Nancy, 1996; Agamben, 1990; Brown & Duguid, 1998; De Michelis, 2012; Esposito, 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991, Nancy, 1986; Wenger, 1998), we affirm that its beginning is the perception of something (an entity) that is separated from herself—the other—with which she interacts and feels a trust relationship (towards which she is inclined). The distinction[1] between 'herself' and 'the other' (entity) brings forth what separates and connects them, where they are 'thrown' and co-exist: space.[2] The space, emerges, therefore, in her discourse at the very beginning of her (knowledge) experience and, as the medium of interaction between her and the other entity(ies), it will permeate it forever.

The plural, suggested as an alternative to the singular at the end of the previous paragraph, recalls that the very first distinction does not remain unique and standalone: other distinctions follow, posing the new problem of assembling them in a coherent way. This is not straightforward. Not only do new distinctions enable the emergence of a plurality of others, but they also question the nature of the self (sooner or later she will distinguish even her body as 'other') as well as the nature of the others entities and of the space(s) where the latter are immersed. Without trying to analyze all the steps characterizing the knowledge experience through which a person creates the world, giving sense to her life and facing the inevitable contradictions, we can recall that it involves creating abstract concepts for analyzing and categorizing entities and spaces.

New distinctions, in fact, may both further populate an interaction space that has already emerged in previous distinctions, or create new interaction spaces. A new distinction, in fact, may be incoherent in principle with previous distinctions. When this happens, it brings forth a new space where the interactions with the newly distinguished entity are situated. The growing diversity of spaces generated by knowledge experience requires that human beings analyze and categorize them, transforming the medium of distinctions itself into an object of distinction: any space is then analyzed from the point of view of its organization and of the entities populating it. Both the geometrical qualities of space and the potential for action and interaction made accessible by the entities populating it emerge at this moment as a way to make concrete the topological properties of the space as a medium. It is important to underline that the geometry of space does not emerge when a distinction is made, but only afterwards, when distinctions are categorized and organized: geometry is not a constitutive property of space. Rather it is a quality emerging as a means to confer coherence to our knowledge experience. But human experience is twice plural: several diverse entities populate several diverse interaction spaces and coherence is continuously broken by new distinctions caused by human actions and interactions and other events. This means that the re-organization of knowledge human beings continuously perform in order to align distinctions, is not a means for reaching complete coherence. Rather it is, per se, what they seek: what matters is leaning towards coherence, not coherence itself.

Even the geometrical characterization of space that we perform while

reorganizing knowledge is a continuously renovating dynamic process. Within this process, the spaces emerging acquire geometrical qualities, reflecting the physical extension of the subject (and of the entities she distinguishes), and the Euclidean properties of her perceptions and/or interactions. But this does not avoid the fact that the spaces created in this way become incoherent. This may require that some spaces are not fully developed in geometrical terms or that new geometries are created to characterize them. What matters, in any case, is again leaning towards coherence.

Let us dedicate some more thought on how human beings face the irreducible plurality of their knowledge experience. The incoherence among distinctions emerges within the discourse human beings perform while reflecting on them: reflection on distinctions constitutes together the world where human beings live and the discourse about it. Any human interaction can be seen, therefore, as having the form of a language game (Wittgenstein, 1953) linking words to the things and beings populating a space. Emerging in the discourse of a person, an interaction space and what populates it allow her to give sense to her experience, appropriating that space.[3] The space where she and other human beings are thrown—space is intrinsically social!—becomes their place[4] (Harrison & Dourish, 1996), where they can act in accordance with their aims as well as give sense to their actions. This happens when the discourse switches from geometrical to functional language, where names and verbs characterize the things populating the place from the viewpoint of what a person can do with them, objectifying them. Giving sense and/or appropriating are performed, therefore, through the linguistic interactions of the people living together in a portion of space: the discourse continuously renovated through their conversations, continuously renovates the place where they live together and the objects populating it. This is possible because, on the one hand, their language game changes while they converse, on the other hand, beneath their place and its objects, there are a space and the things populating it that cannot be reduced to their functions and features remaining, ultimately, matters of concern open to new unexpected possibilities.[5] Appropriation is always contingent, partial and limited, and ceaselessly renewed. Any action and interaction performed in a place in accordance with its functional image, unavoidably modifies that place and imposes to its inhabitants to re-appropriate it, to renew their sense making. This is, simultaneously, a problem stressing the life of human beings but also their potential for innovation.

Why do I need such a foundational discourse in order to discuss the relationship between knowledge and space? Because within it, it emerges with great clarity that knowing is deeply grounded on space and intrinsically coupled with it. What is knowledge according to this view of human experience? Knowledge—we take into consideration here knowledge for action, in a sense that can be associated to Nonaka and colleagues work (Nonaka & Konno, 1998; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995)—is what links words and space coupling distinctions and sense making, so that words give sense to human actions and, conversely, actions give sense to human words. We don't need to evocate a reality out there to conceive the sense of our words: instead to look at a correspondence between words and reality, we can interpret the coupling between our discourse and our actions as the knowledge we create in our experiences. Even when it assumes highly abstract forms, knowledge cannot be liberated from its spatial ground: even when our discourse becomes abstract, in fact, it creates in metaphorical terms a new virtual space as its necessary counterpart. Knowledge is, therefore, intrinsically related with the distinctions we perform in terms of nominating and qualifying the distinguished things and characterizing their potential for interaction.

Without further developing this phenomenological account (Rorty, 1979) on knowledge and space, let me state that just as it is impossible to experience our social existence out of space, it is as impossible to escape spatial discourse. The phenomenological stance (De Michelis, 2008) adopted in these pages liberates our understanding from the idea that the appropriation of a space as our place presupposes our constitution as individuals[6]: we emerge as individuals together with the space where we are thrown and with the entities populating it. Our 'being with', in any case, projects our discourse in the social dimension: it is not by chance that language is the 'universal medium'. Again, we can avoid any na¨ıf idea of discourse as a way for describing the world, to recognize, that language practice connects what is co-existent but irreducibly separated: conversing together we learn to associate to our common experiences the same phrasing. So space emerges in our discourse as a 'necessary condition' for our existence as social beings.

Language, as a collective medium, is what creates the conditions for sharing our experiences with the other people: the language games we play with them reflect the knowledge we share with them. Language is also the means through which we 'appropriate' space, transforming it in our place (Harrison & Dourish, 1996): but this 'placing' needs to be continuously renovated together with our identity and the sense of our experiences since unavoidable breakdowns dis-place the space where we live as well as put in crisis our knowledge (see, Telier et al., 2011, Chap. 7). Dis-placing and re-placing are the moves through which we shift between making sense and opening to innovation, being able to limit inconsistencies so that we can orient our practice to our aims. Knowledge experience cannot avoid reflecting this ambiguity of our spatial experience.

All what we have said up to now has relevant implications for our discourse about both space and knowledge, and, more importantly, about their mutual relations. Space emerges in our experience as the medium where we can give sense to our interactions with other entities: first, it has plural connotations, since considering it unique generates contradictions; second, all properties characterizing it in geometrical terms can not be assumed as constitutive; third, its connotations are unstable and evolve in time. Knowledge emerges in our experience, as the means through which we appropriate space(s), but appropriation is a continuously renovating process and it is always partial and incomplete.

The couple space—knowledge we have outlined in these pages is the natural medium where the 'actants' of Actor Network Theory (ANT; Latour, 2005) are immersed, but it is, also, well suited for characterizing milieus and, in particular, their spatial dimension. Let me recall, shortly, following the line of thought presented by Augusto Cusinato in his Introduction to this book (2015), Emile Durkheim theorization (1982) on social facts and milieus. Durkheim, willing to avoid a simplistic view of social facts as stemming directly from social interaction, views them related to the conditions in which social relations take place: (a) the spatial arrangement of the whole set of elements entering the social dimension (later labeled as substratum; Durkheim, 1898), (b) the social volume (or mass) and

(c) the relational density inside the community concerned. If space, in fact, is characterized as we did above, then it emerges that, not only, we cannot reduce it to “the material support which communities use to firmly establish the system of mental categories and the configuration of social relationships” (Cusinato, 2015) but, also, we can affirm that space emergence, in its complexity and multiplicity, encompasses and justifies the creation of social volume and relational density within a community. Going back to ANT, it is clear that the network of human and non-human actors it proposes is suited to bringing forth the impossibility of abstracting communities (milieus) from their spatial arrangements. The spatial dimension of a milieu in our view is not a fixed arrangement where the community lives and creates knowledge, but, in its dynamic and manifold evolution, it is the condition for the development of social volume and relational density. Any intervention on a milieu, therefore, cannot be effective, if it does not face, primarily, it spatial dimension.

  • [1] We use here 'distinction' in a way that has much in common with the way Jean Piaget uses it (1964), even if we assume a more radical phenomenological viewpoint: perception and interaction are for us bound each other in an indissoluble way. We are not interested, instead, in the formal treatment of distinctions proposed, e.g., by George Spencer Brown (1972). Niklas Luhmann (2002) is also using 'distinction' in his social theory; his reference is to Spencer Brown's logical treatment of it, and, therefore, we do not need to discuss it here
  • [2] The reader could ask: why not considering time at this point? Without discussing this issue, let me say that time is not a primitive concept and that its 'distinction' is not immediate
  • [3] The reader should note that here 'appropriation' does not pre-suppose the existence of the space that we appropriate: space emergence and its appropriation are contemporary events developing in the interplay between actions and perceptions on one part and discourse on the other
  • [4] The diversity between space and place (Dourish, 2001; Harrison & Dourish, 1996) is the diversity between geometrical and functional discourse, and we should always remember that, but for extreme cases, we always oscillate between them
  • [5] See: Latour and Weibel (2005), De Michelis (2014)
  • [6] On this point, see: Nancy (1986, 1996)
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