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Review of "Repressed Spaces"

By Paul Carter
Reaktion Books, 2002
Review by Gerard O'Sullivan on Sep 9th 2003
Repressed Spaces

The project of Paul Carter's book, Repressed Spaces: The Poetics of Agoraphobia, begins with -- is, in fact, propelled by -- an anecdote from Theodor Reik's The Search Within.  One night Reik was walking with Freud in the Kaerterstrasse in Vienna.  As the two men prepared to cross a busy street, Freud hesitated on the curbside, as if frozen.  Freud took hold of Reik's arm and confessed, "You see, there is a survival of my old agoraphobia, which troubled me much in younger years."

            Freud made little of his own fear of open spaces in his autobiographical comments.  Indeed, few if any of Freud's biographers have spent time considering the importance of Freud's agoraphobia to his own psychic history, or the development of psychoanalytic theory, generally.  Reik, however, saw in Freud's passing remark "the hidden missing link" between Freud's early psychological interests and his "later occupation with the neuroses."

In other words, Freud's later work on the dream was an attempt to find common ground (the metaphor is intentional) between the minds of sick and healthy people, or between normal and abnormal mental activities.  The dream was, after all, an "abnormal mental product created by normal people" and thus a bridge between what Reik calls the "limited island" of Freud's own neurosis to the "larger continent of general pathology and psychology."  Note the preponderance of spatial metaphors

According to Reik's analysis, Freud's ingenious attempt to link neurosis and psychopathology was motivated by his own fear of open spaces -- a kind of compensatory transversal of a seemingly non-negotiable terrain.   Paul Carter takes this further: what if, at the origin of psychoanalysis, "an environmental neurosis had been repressed?"  Freud's hesitation at the curb of a heavily trafficked street was entirely reasonable, says Carter; his faltering was a healthy response to the unhealthy and dangerous speed, and increased volume, of Viennese traffic rather than a symptomatic turning away from his own unruly instinctual drives. 

This leads Carter to ask two questions that shape his overall inquiry:

"Why did Freud repress the unconscious drives shaping his own environment? And what would be the consequence of attending to these and therapeutically unrepressing them?"  Carter finds in psychoanalysis a "repressed environmental unconscious" which has shaped discourse about space and agoraphobia since the genesis of Freudian thinking.

            Paul Carter writes not as a psychoanalyst but as a historian of culture, colonialism and spatial design.  His earlier books, The Road to Botany Bay (1987) and The Lie of the Land (1996), each explore the relationships among colonialism, landscape and ideology.  Repressed Spaces is a kind of archaeological retrieval of agoraphobia as a "realistic" anxiety about the loss of human-scale spaces and the ideology of contemporary urban architecture and city planning.  The book attempts to recast agoraphobia as a movement inhibition rather than an irrational and merely symptomatic response to terrain.

Repress the "lie of the land" and you engender panic in people, argues Carter.  The Greek agora was a "natural" meeting-place, scoured out by a "surplus of paths" and "wedge-shaped islands, turning circles and terraces -- in short, every kind of locomotory trace" (186).   The Roman forum, on the other hand, was both estranging and dangerous.  When the Romans drained what Varro called a "swampy spot" and built over a sacred brook to create an artificial "open space," they transgressed not only religious law but also ignored good engineering practice and sound architectural sense.  The agora was homey and welcoming; the forum was regarded by many as dangerous and impassible. 

            How, then, did agoraphobia become the byproduct of a repressed fear of something other than space -- something else -- when its immediate object is so pervasive?   When Freud took that fateful step into the dangerous, whirling whorl of traffic that was the Ringstrasse in his day, his hesitation was entirely rational.  "Immobility," writes Carter, "is produced not by a lack of directions, but by an excess of them" (17). 

            Carter is more interested in surveying kinetic theories of agoraphobia than environmental ones.  Carter's focus on the relationship between human motility and modern architecture is guided by a consideration of the writings of Camillo Sitte, whose famous 1889 treatise, Der Städtebau nach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen (City Planning According to Artistic Principles) launched the first sustained critique of modern city planning and architecture, and made of him what Carter calls "a kind of environmental Freud." 

According to Sitte, the then-predominant models of urban planning created conditions which were as alienating as they were hazardous, and especially for walkers.  Planners and architects had become so concerned with the free-flow of "traffic" and the creation of broad boulevards and squares created to accommodate bustle that they neglected the human-scale arrangement of plazas and streets -- to the detriment of human well-being.  Carter quotes Sitte approvingly when he writes, "the right kind of square could lift from the soul of modern man the curse of urban loneliness and the fear of the vast and bustling void.  Anonymous space is transmuted by the containing sides of a square into a human scene, infinite urban riches in a little room" (24). 

So, writes Carter, Sitte regarded agoraphobia, as it had come to be defined by students of culture and psychology, as an oxymoron.  If the classical agora's distinguishing features were its "sociability and homeliness" why would anyone be stricken with fear in its presence?  Writes Carter: "As an anxiety or discomfort experienced in traversing vast open places, the new nervous disorder was an anti-agora phobia, a panic associated with a new species of non-place" (121). 

According to Carter, Sitte wished to inspire agoraphilia in urban planners -- an appreciation for old squares, rising prospects, winding streets and historical markers, which would refamiliarize the urban landscape rather than repeatedly cast it into the realm of the unfamiliar and uncanny.  Sitte encouraged architects and city planners to fuse their disciplines with the plastic and graphic arts rather than making city streets bald expressions of applied geometry.  In many ways, says Carter, Sitte's critique anticipated Walter Benjamin's essays on the nineteenth-century arcades of Paris "which, being closed off from the outdoors, encouraged a phantasmagoric existence" (122). 

            While the phantasmagoric existence of enclosed and artificial spaces --or what a neo-Marxist, following Althusser, might call "imaginary relations" -- might engender agoraphobic responses, the response is anything but phantasmal.  Carter is careful to point out that the distinctive unease of the agoraphobe's reaction is quite real:

On this reading, agoraphobia stems from the prospect of places being opened up that are not places.  The crisis occurs as a confrontation with make-believe spaces.  The opening they promise is infinitely estranging.  The enlarged access they offer produces a concomitant anomie.  A sense of vertigo is accompanied by a fear of asphyxiation: maximum mobility accompanied by maximum petrification -- agora-claustro-phobia.  The double-bind sensation arises from a sudden awareness of a lost relation.  Characteristics of sociable space that had been taken for granted become conspicuous by their absence.  Qualities of orientation, proximity and grouping, and their behavioural counterparts, gathering, lingering and the general gymnastic of a rhetorically conducted social existence, are missing (210).

            Carter's fourth chapter, entitled "Meeting," brings artist Alberto Giacometti into conversation with philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in an attempt to imagine what an urban landscape built around "possible paths of propinquity" rather than metropolitan estrangement might look like.  Giacometti's sculptural compositions such as The City Square (1948) are attempts to capture the sense of people coming together and then drifting apart -- the urban dynamic of seemingly making "contact anew" on an ongoing basis.  Carter likens this to Levinas's phenomenological thematization of the human face as always seeming to "come from beyond" in human encounters, whereby the "Other is higher than I am."  Both Giacometti and Levinas imagine public spaces constructed to encourage human meetings, and to encourage their conviviality, as well. 

Carter's argument is not new.  He is one among many writers to offer a theoretical diagnosis of the dehumanization of contemporary urban space.  But his discussion of agoraphobia as an understandable reaction to the imaginary places of contemporary urbanism, as well as the repressed "environmental unconscious" of psychoanalysis itself, is original, and often convincing. 

This reader would have liked to see Carter extend his critique to include a discussion of the so-called "New Urbanism/Traditional Neighborhood Development" movement -- which combines the worst features of suburban sprawl with the very distortions of urban planning decried by Carter.  Interested readers will have to turn instead to a study like Alex Marshall's How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken to see how many of Carter's pointed psychoanalytic observations might apply to the "New Urbanism," as well. 


© 2003 Gerard O'Sullivan


Gerard O'Sullivan, Felician College, New Jersey

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