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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment


Nothing is ever done with: smooth space allows itself to be striated, and striated space reimparts a smooth space, with potentially very different values, scope, and signs. Perhaps we must say that all progress is made by and in striated space, but all becoming occurs in smooth space.

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Deleuze and Guattari’s words above insinuate a paradoxical spatial dynamics that, we claim, might be at the core of the American experience of mobility and space. Assuming the inevitable overlap and transfer between different types of spaces, Deleuze and Guattari equate progress with well- mapped, heavily traveled roads. There is no progress outside the cartography of the state, no progress in the open spaces or beyond the state. In contrast, “becoming,” which conveys an open world of multiplicity, fluidity, and change, occurs necessarily beyond the state, in an open space that grants undeterred, multidirectional movement. This pattern of state occupation of the land—with the imposition of governmental cartographies— and the nomadic individual’s escape into the outside underlines Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between “striated” and “smooth” spaces. They postulate a form of universal state space, a space as background that they call striated or sedentary space. This space is inherently hierarchical, homogeneous, static; “the striated is that which intertwines fixed and variable elements, produces an order and succession of distinct forms, organizes horizontal . . . lines with vertical . . . planes” (1988, 478). Guided by “the constitution of central perspective,” striated space serves the purpose of control, acting as a kind of Panopticon.5 It relies on a view of spatiality as a constant, a given, subject to cartographical representation and recognition. All variables occurring within this kind of space may be reducible into manageable parameters.

In contrast, smooth or nomad space is indeterminate, moveable, insurgent, and inhabited by connections, intensities, and observances, itself produced by and productive of new becomings (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988). As opposed to the inherent continuity of striated space, smooth space is inhabited by the unexpected, the unanticipated; it is contingent, the result of multiple passages and different linkages. It is not monolingual and authoritative, but polyvocal and multidirectional. Against the visual nature of striated space, smooth space is tactile, to be experienced directly and not through the map. And yet, as Deleuze and Guattari promptly propose, there is no absolute separation between both kinds of space. The smooth and striated spaces are inextricably linked and constantly overlap and mutate, as they are acted upon by different forces and vectors.

This anatomy of the spatial experience reverberates in the American experience of land occupation and settlement. In Dwelling in the Text, Marilyn R. Chandler (1991) unveils a peculiar tension in American culture between the project of settlement and building—of striating the territory, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms—and the romantic image of the wandering, rootless, nomadic hero whose roof is the sky and whose home is the open prairie. Enclosure within striated spaces—whether the walls of a house or the structures of small town or big city life—runs counter to the inherent romanticism of some of America’s most cherished collective values: self-determination, individualism, progress. Values that find in spatial mobility the perfect blank slate on which to imprint the national and individual narrative. Progress seems thus to be deeply rooted in the narrative of the country, not so much in the struggles of the settler, who remains within domesticated spaces, but rather in those of the pioneer, who ventures into the open territories beyond striated spaces.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the “civilizing” process in the U.S. relied on the dialectic between striated and smooth territories, and between the settlement of the land and the exploration of the presumably vacant wilderness. However, as the frontier moved west, inexorably striating the land, the settlers’ progress became deeply tainted with economic and political compromise. Simultaneously, the deeply rooted ideals of innocence and freedom resulted in the apotheosis of the nomadic hero, who takes the less traveled roads and resists the confinements of domestic life. American literature offers a long tradition of these heroes—voluntary exiles from society who venture into the wilderness and its uncertainties in search of adventure, knowledge, and wisdom outside the locations and structures of civilized life. These American Adams incarnate the desire for innocence regained, and some of the fear of entrapment in deadening social slots. “I take to the open road,” Walt Whitman optimistically writes, “Healthy, free, the world before me, / The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” The poem exhorts the reader to abandon the house (“You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house”), since the indoor places breed “a secret silent loathing and despair” (1973, 149). In another instance, at the end of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck resolves to “light out for the territory” before Aunt Sally “sivilizes” him (1981, 281). The territories, we may surmise, are the relatively unsettled western U.S., which offer Huck the opportunity to be free again, to be himself. Over a century later, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses retakes the trip at the same location where Huck might have ended it, in the plains and deserts of west Texas, to tell the story of two teenage boys, John Grady, and his pal, Jimmy Rawlins, who put troubled family situations behind them and light out for the territory—and out of the territory—going south, crossing into Mexico like mythical horsemen in search of themselves:

They rode out onto the high prairie, where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under them but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing. (1993, 30)

Grady and Rawlins begin their odyssey into the unknown by entering a blank world, basically guided by the stars. They are leaving behind a fully striated territory, clearly represented by the grids on the map they carry with them: “It was an oil company roadmap that Rawlins had picked up at the cafe. . . . There were roads and rivers and towns on the American side of the map as far south as the Rio Grande and beyond that all was white” (ibid., 34). The tightness of the Texan landscape, scarred and lotted by barbed wire boundaries, contrasts with the uncharted whiteness to the south of the border, which seems to promise “ten thousand worlds for the choosing.” Both John Grady and Jimmy Rawlins, as well as Huckleberry Finn and other nomad heroes in American culture, presumably leave behind not only family problems, but also a particular ideology and civilization by escaping beyond the confines of familiar spaces. Spatial location outside is equated with ideological outsiderness. And yet, though unbeknownst to the nomadic hero, there is no pure, smooth spatiality, no fluid, nomadic space that is not subject to being tainted by the state, as Deleuze and Guattari indicate: “Smooth space is constantly being translated, transversed into a striated space” (1988, 474). While leaving the striated spaces behind, and venturing into the unknown, the nomadic hero fails to fully shed the ideological narratives of space. In his escape from society and socially defined spaces, he carries with him the quintessentially American ideologies of the Virgin Land and of Manifest Destiny. He is the pioneer into the Virgin Land, ostensibly its first civilized inhabitant, taking a new step forward in the advance of Manifest Destiny. The narrative organized around the metaphor of the Virgin Land was the result of a collective desire to disavow the historical fact of the American dispossession of indigenous peoples of their lands. The myth of the Virgin Land enabled the American settlers to believe in their radical innocence. It helped deterritorialize the continent by erasing the fact that the land was already settled by a vast native population.6 In the prologue to Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Henry Nash Smith finds the defining characteristic of America in that “our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward . . . to the Pacific Coast” (1950, 4). Along the same lines, in the preface to his Errand into the Wilderness, Perry Miller histori- cizes “the massive narrative of the movement of the European culture into the vacant wilderness of America” (1956, vii). The historical reality of land usurpation was replaced by a national spatial fantasy that enabled Americans to obliterate the deterritorialization and displacement of the Native American, and in some instances the extermination of entire populations. Pioneers and trailblazers were the first explorers into the “vacant” spaces, drawing the initial lines into a territory that would then be appropriated by the settlers.

These nomadic heroes inscribe the new lands with narratives of freedom and potentiality, of fluidity and progress. However, despite their location apparently outside the state, they fail to really escape from what Slavoj Zizek terms “the hegemonic ideological coordinates” (2008); contrarily, these explorers of the unknown were the double agents of striation. In a material sense, by opening up new routes on smooth territories, they became the necessary precursors in the process of settling and domesticating the “vacant” wilderness.7 In a more symbolical sense, the nomad, as a lone wanderer, a refugee from a degenerate civilization, an image of innocence regained, helps American culture sublimate its past evils and deal with its peculiar “return of the repressed.” In a way, the nomadic hero is the necessary counterpart to the American dynamic of land usurpation and participates of the same ideology. In Reading Capital, Althusser already warned that “it is impossible to leave a closed space simply by taking up a position merely outside it” since the apparent outside would merely be “its ‘repetition’ in its other-than-itself” ([1968] 1979, 53). In our view, these heroes’ adventures into the open spaces ultimately reinforce the spatial narratives of the state, by bringing the outside inside. They are somehow caught in a seeming duality, which drives towards displacement but only as a form of ultimate re-emplacement. As Ashley Bourne claims, there is a central paradox in the construction of space, place, and identity, namely “that one longs for stability, a fixed sense of place and self, but is also compelled to perpetual motion, seeking out those spaces where place and self will stabilize” (2009, 109). The heroic venture into the outside, into the unknown, is the mere transitory stage that precedes the return to a safe place and safe boundaries for the self. Yi-Fu Tuan claimed in his seminal study that “place is permanent and hence reassuring to man, who sees frailty in himself and chance and flux everywhere” (1977, 154). The nomadic escape into the outside was not in persecution of flux and change, as much as in search of a new place, a new dwelling for the self.

It is not these nomadic heroes that illustrate the space of fluidity and “becoming” that Deleuze and Guattari call “smooth” space. Smooth spaces were the natural milieu of the nomads, whose spatial practices translated into a form of ahierarchical, fluid, and changing mode of thinking that Deleuze and Guattari call “nomadic thought.” In A Thousand Plateaus, they define nomadic thought as a deterritorializing force that smooths over previously striated spaces. It locates itself at the intersection between the smooth and the striated, and thus it happens not outside the state, but within its own perimeters. After all, Deleuze and Guattari contend, we should not “define the nomad by movement” since “the nomad is on the contrary he who does not move” (1988, 421). The escape from the abstract, deadening space of power can be essentially immanent: the potential to go beyond the rigid lines of the state may be found within the state itself, within the complex layers and interconnected vectors of social space, hence the need to rethink the nomad, to relocate it within the city walls, not in flight from the social but as inherent in the social space. In the face of capitalist accumulation and exploitation of the land, nomadic thought may give rise to forms of on-site resistance to the advance of territorialization. “Resistance,” argues Simon Critchley, “begins by occupying and controlling the terrain upon which one stands, where one lives, works, acts and thinks” (2007, 114), rather than by escaping to the outside.8 And yet, nomadic thought is necessarily related to the outside, insomuch as it brings a thinking that is not fully accountable for by the dominant frame of reference. Nomadic thought occurs there where there is a perception of a different plane of thought, an “interstitial” (ibid., 124) space not fully inside nor outside, a “space of dissensus,”9 not readily accounted for by the dominant code. The “spatial heroes” addressed here locate the space of dissensus within the social order, disturbing the natural order of things; they are resisting heroes that stay and occupy the heavily ideologized spaces of the state in an effort to vacate their premises. Melville’s Bartleby is one such hero.10 He occupies the lawyer’s office to transform it into his intimate “space of dis- sensus,” and to expose dominant ideologies to the outside of themselves, thus revealing a series of conflicts inherent in the American articulation of space. He occupies the rigidly striated premises of the Law, at the confluence of multiple vectors and lines of flight. That is, he represents the hero who escapes without running away or even moving an inch, the hero who engages in nomadic thought without becoming a nomad himself, the hero who resists the “ideological state coordinates” by occupying its disciplined spaces in order to empty out the ideological premises engrafted in them.

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