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David N. Livingstone


Hallowed Ground

Mapping the geography of the sacred.

Reading is central to the project of BOOKS & CULTURE. And it is clear from even a casual perusal of its pages that reading applies no less to the "culture" half of the title than to the "books" component. It is, I think, in large measure to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz that we owe the idea that human culture is a text that can be read, a kind of document in need of interpretation. To think this way, Geertz once noted, "shifts the analysis of cultural forms from an endeavor in general parallel to dissecting an organism, diagnosing a symptom, deciphering a code to one in general parallel with penetrating a literary text." We are, by now, familiar with this line of thinking and with the diverse range of ways in which we routinely apply the notion of reading: we read books, maps, musical scores, mathematical formulas, movies, political situations, religious rituals.

Places can also be read. Cultural geographers have long been speaking of landscapes as texts that can be translated. Indeed it has become commonplace to use the fundamentally religious language of "iconography" to interrogate the cultural meanings that are inscribed in landscapes. The spaces humans occupy are thus to be seen as symbolic formations. Space, we have come to realize, is not an empty container within which human action takes place, or a mere stage on which the human drama unfolds. Rather it is constitutive of social interaction.

Getting a handle on some of the ways in which space is produced has done a good deal to open up fresh lines of inquiry at every scale from the routine spaces of daily life, to global geopolitical relations. For the spaces through which we transact the affairs of social life are both the medium and the outcome of human interaction. Consider the different venues that act as the arenas in which we encounter other people—the factory floor, the sports field, the dinner party, the church building, the lecture hall, the home—to name but a very few. In each case, ...

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