Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Talking and Listening to Place

By Paul C. Adams, University of Texas at Austin and Jacek Kotus, Adam Mickiewicz University

Upper Crust announces its presence in various ways: its name is displayed in large, neon letters over the door, passers-by see people eating and talking at outdoor tables, air blowing out the door carries the scent of fresh baked goods, noisy birds frequent the spot to beg for crumbs and make loud, screeching calls. For those who stop there, the communications include signals such as sun-warmed seats, an occasional drop of water falling from the trellis overhead, a hot mug in one’s fingers, and of course the taste of food. Taken together, these aspects of the place—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations—invite humans and non-humans to come to the place, enter, pause, and engage.  By using the place, we send messages with our voices and faces, bodies and wallets. Our responses to the place instantly become part of the place, prompting responses from others. All of this suggests a sort of on-going conversation in, of, and by the place—what we call place dialogue.

Indigenous geographers laid the groundwork for understanding place dialogue. Their work reveals places as active participants in communications, engaging with people in ways that are complex and embodied. Habits of thought built into modernity, most notably positivistic science, have pushed this idea of engaging in dialogic with place to the margins. We can return to it by following Indigenous people of Australia fishing and digging for yams, tracing a song spiral, and making stringybark Eucalyptus rope. Such excursions into non-modern ways of understanding place embrace communications with place through concepts such as caring for countryand caring as country. To engage in dialogue with place is to care for place, co-constituting oneself with place, knowing places through doing, developing ethical relationships with places and the creatures in them. Scholars in this tradition ask seemingly odd questions, like “do rocks listen?” and “do glaciers listen?” Such questions challenge the modernist view of nature as inert, mindless, deaf and dumb. In short, indigenous geography has expanded the geographical awareness of place prompting other geographers to reflect on the communicational dynamics in rural and urban places seemingly distant from indigenous lives.

We respond to this question in our article by considering place dialogue in three settings: an urban bakery, a subway, and a tourism-oriented nature preserve. The opening of this blog entry offers a glimpse of the first of these. We use semiotic theory to delve further into the dynamics of place dialogue in all three cases. The act of occupying and making sense of a place, engaging with it and responding to it, forms communication links: sensation to interpretation to action. These are chains of interaction that create meaning. These chains can be called sign events. Dissecting each sign event reveals an agent that imposes meaning, an object on which meaning is imposed, and an interpretant, which is the act arising from a moment of recognition, An interpretant can be as subtle as a re-focusing of a predator’s eyes, or as intense as the predator’s leap onto the neck of its prey. It can be as subtle as merely recognizing the words “Upper Crust” on a sign, or as intense as biting into a cinnamon roll. As this explanation suggests, humans are not the only agents making meaning of the places they inhabit.

Despite the distinction between agent and object, recognition involves a two-way relationship between agent and object—place acts on us and we on it. Every interpretant of what the place means, or what a part of the place means, is itself a message that reshapes the place and dynamics among its occupants.

A few examples help here. If a friend and I head toward a seat on the outdoor terrace, entering the space between the tables, we send a message that we belong there. For our presence to respond to the messages sent by the place, implicit territorial messages about who does and does not belong, we must send a kind of message by purchasing something; when we buy our pastries and coffee we nonverbally communicate our claim to occupy the space. As we talk animatedly, a couple moves to a more distant table and we read their movement as a message we’ve been talking too loudly. We respond to this response to our response to the place, quieting our conversation a notch. A drop of water falls from the arbor over our heads and we move to the side, reading the drip as a sign that there may be more drips, and responding by moving our bodies out of the way. Our conversation starts and stops, pausing for a dog bark, a honking horn, church bells, and a grackle’s loud rattling call. We are not just communicating with each other; we are picking up on the meanings of these place-based events.

The place is speaking to us in its peculiar languages, hinting at other communications arising from the encounters of other actors (dog meets dog; driver meets driver), communicating their presence (hello, I’m a dog/person/grackle/car/church bell) and coordinating their actions (a driver fails to notice a green light and is brought to attention by a honking horn, a congregation is brought together to assemble by a ringing bell). Things in the place send messages to other things in the place, chaining messages upon messages, engaging multiple occupants and ourselves in a complex dialogue.

Any place engages in dialogue with us, sending signs and absorbing our actions as communications. The picture above hints at some sort of misunderstanding. A sign by a hiking trail reads “NOT A CAMPSITE.” Apparently, people have been mistaking this place as a campsite, or else the sign would not have been put up by park staff. The act of camping was some camper’s interpretant—an action taken in response to a particular interpretation of the place—but from the park staff’s point of view it was also a misinterpretation. The number “1” carved into a piece of wood was not a campsite number. It was there to key to an interpretive trail guide, so visitors could read explanations of features along the trail. The “NOT A CAMPSITE” sign is a sort of reply to the traces of camping (such as broken branches, bits of debris, and cleared areas on the ground), revealing the misinterpretation of the “1”, while offering a bit of new information to all passersby. In this case, written words jump out to highlight a malfunction of the ordinary, nonverbal, place dialogue.

These messages suggest an organism-environment with a peculiar vitality including “intricate, messy, place-based and dynamic webs of entanglements that hold and make us”. Whether we consider a conversation at the bakery or a walk on a trail we can see a place impelling people, through their own interpretants and those of other agents, “to act in certain ways”. We can also see the messiness of communications as revealed by actions that do not follow the intended interpretations. Despite this messiness, there is a kind of order.

The word “dialogue” is meant to suggest that this order involves forms of exchange between equals. Attending to another and leaving space for a reply means that one treats a conversation partner as worthy of respect. This is what Martin Buber calls a Thou rather than an It. Place dialogue treats the other as a thou, meaning an interlocutor, another agent with a claim to the place. In addition, place dialogue respects places, but not by romanticizing, abstracting, or instrumentalizing them. Rather it acknowledges the two-way communication dynamics that are always chaining into and through them. To engage in dialogue with a place is to respect the power of the place by listening to what it is telling us. For this, one needs to recognize place as more than a mere communication content or context, more than something that is represented or the surroundings in which people take part in communication. Place as content and place as context are both present. These dynamics shape the place. However, living in a place also involves the mutual recognition and caring that are embodied in place dialogue.

These ideas take us beyond the main ways in which media geography and communication geography have conceived of geography and communication. In general, these studies pointed to places-in-communications (for example the home as it is captured in pictures and songs and novels) and communications-in-places (for example the television in the living room and the computer in the home office). The study of place dialogue adds another layer of complexity to geographical understandings of place, revealing the universal validity of insights from indigenous geography, and extending that that subdiscipline’s commitment to caring for places and decentering human agency.  

About the authors:  Dr. Paul C. Adams is a Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as Graduate Advisor and Director of Urban Studies. Dr. Jacek Kotus is a Professor on the Faculty of Human Geography and Planning at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland.

Suggested Further Reading

Adams, P. C. (2016). ‘Placing the Anthropocene: A day in the life of an enviro‐organism.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers41(1), 54-65. DOI:10.1111/tran.12103

Lorimer, J. (2010). ‘Elephants as companion species: The lively biogeographies of Asian elephant conservation in Sri Lanka.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00395.x

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